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yoga and the true non-self?

What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.

Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras, a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an alleged expert on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then rap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”btke

Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us, or if they’ve created cultures full of deeply repressed, unaware, guilty, violent, self-serving people. If our own didn’t work for us, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.

On the importance of attachments and ego

In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large, I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.” That resonates.

It supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?

Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to those around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.

This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans happy: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.

New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.

At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”

Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding intimacy. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.

yoga, exoticism, & the new age

ttdesagain

by Kevin Moore // from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

“A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest… We must free ourselves from the sacralization of the social as the only reality and stop regarding as superfluous something so essential in human life and human relations as thought.”

~ Michel Foucault, “Is it Really Important to Think?”

In the last year I’ve been more befuddled by the myths of present-day yoga than ever before. While I appreciate that myths can be extremely useful in giving us meaning, literal interpretations of myth, ie, taking them to be truth, are unhelpful. And I mean, really unhelpful. There are so many meaningless, contradictory platitudes thrown around in the service of “healing” that I ask what the hell we are doing here.

For example, the “ancient” tradition of yoga. You have hopefully heard that what we are doing in American yoga studios is not ancient. The yoga asana practice popular in the west is about 100 years old, though there are certainly asana that have a history of at least 1000yrs (see Mallinson, 2011), probably longer. There is no evidence that these postures were ever practiced in any certain order, much less linked, before the 20th Century. And the way we practice them in class bears little resemblance to how they were practiced in India even 100 years ago. Not because we are egoistic and grasping for “better” asana, and not because we aren’t “spiritual” but because we have changed the poses, their execution, and not least, the discourse (the way of communicating yoga), with a massive injection of New Age spirituality and healing.

It is fabulously interesting that this New Age element, with its Christian origins, has come to be understood as “Eastern.” The romantic, mystical Eastern other will save us. A student once told me that another teacher she practiced with was much more “Eastern” in her teaching. There are a few problems with this, aside from being incorrect and reductive (see Said, 1979). First, instructing students to “blossom your heart open” and to “let your shoulder blades kiss” to the beat of Girish is not “Eastern,” and a quick review of Indian yoga teachers will document this. Second, it encourages white Americans to run around in saris, dhotis, and bindis, preach about Hindu Gods, and otherwise unreflectively appropriate culture, somehow believing it secures their authenticity, spirituality and authority when it is, in fact, offensive to many.

I am not condemning behavior, nor am I promoting a disingenuous political correctness that can stifle real, transformative dialogue if people are too afraid to share their thoughts—thoughts they have shared or not, thoughts more likely changed if shared openly and respectfully than if kept shamed and hidden—for fear of being labeled inappropriate or wrong. I’m just asking that we think about it.

an India Coldplay didn't show you

an India Coldplay didn’t show you

Two days after I wrote these first paragraphs (I’d stopped after the last, a bit stuck and annoyed by my tone), there was a a piece in the Guardian by  about a new Coldplay video. She writes: “If cultural appropriation means that a privileged group adopts the symbols and practices of a marginalized one for profit or social capital, then yes, Coldplay’s video is committing cultural appropriation” (Coldplay: only the latest pop stars to misrepresent India as an exotic playground, February 1, 2016). The video trended in Indian media, as Indians debated whether it was offensive or not. It seems that many weren’t offended so much as disappointed that after Coldplay had come and hung out with India’s hipsters, explored the music scene, and met with PM Narendra Modi, this cliché was the best they could do.

Coldplay’s video reinforces the rampant romanticization of India in American yoga culture (a quick search turned up a piece Kumar wrote while at Rutgers, “The Myth of the “Body Beautiful”: Representation and Commodification in Contemporary American Yoga Culture”). And while some may say, “This is harmless, don’t be so sensitive, this is better than being portrayed as gang rapists and beggars,” look at the power dynamics operating underneath the appropriation. Can you see how the idealized representations and the negative representations reinforce one another, depend on each other as the polarities of a “primitive” stereotype? If this sort of analysis isn’t your thing, then maybe just take in that it’s offensive to many. Why do you need to do it? What are you getting out of it? Be aware, and make your decisions accordingly.

With something like yoga, which is now (and long has been) an intercultural phenomenon regardless how we might feel about it, there is always risk of appropriation. Some feel the very act of doing yoga, if you aren’t Hindu, is appropriation. Others, Indians included, see no harm in appropriation or exotic representation, as in the the Coldplay video. My point here is not to rehash all this again, but to suggest we take a look at how we might appropriate culture in our yoga practice and teaching, myths and philosophy included. Are you comfortable with it? Do you know why you do it? Is it necessary? Can you talk about it? Is it serving you? Or is it just cool? Is it even authentic? Or is it New Age?

Why is so much of New Age yoga rhetoric and practice attributed to India and “the East”? It’s not only incorrect. At root, it’s not even about India. It’s about the hyper-rationality, hyper-literalism, and the sterile, affectless modernity of our own culture (which exists in the East as well). Can’t we be a little smarter than this?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Bhagavad Gita are certainly ancient. But historically, they had little to do with our asana-laden physical yoga until the modern age. More on this next time. Or the new age thing.

ramified mind: when you realize (part ii of ii)

3espi

Last time detailed the deepest dissociative experience I’ve had while also observing it. That was kind of cool. Why dissociative bliss is not a great choice was in the coming down experience.

When I left, I hadn’t completely grounded. It was noonish, and I hadn’t eaten yet. My blood sugar felt low (Ehrenreich is right, low blood sugar does contribute to dissociative states, but is not responsible for them) and I was still feeling not quite there. The blissful edge had worn off and the lack of grounding felt more irritating than anything, more or less like low blood sugar (hangry, in popular parlance). I walked home at a not-quick pace, trying to feel my feet with each step, replaying the morning in my mind. I should have taken the train. It’s faster and I didn’t need the vata-movement. But the dissociative state wasn’t letting go, and I walked. The scenic route. Once home, I realized I had only 10 minutes to ready for my workday before I had to leave for the hair appointment. Damn.

I ate a slice of peanut butter and banana toast, and then some cheese and hummus before I raced off to the appointment, walking again. I was still slightly dissociated and needed to eat more. If you have low blood sugar, perhaps you know that once it’s low, you can wander around trying to find something that seems good to eat for far too long. All possible choices are wildly irritating. I wished I had almond butter (awesome for both grounding and blood sugar regulation) and swore I should carry some with me at all times should this happen (ridiculous). Instead of marching to a store with fresh almond butter 3 blocks away, I took the train, 1 block away, up to work to find something there.

After a large sandwich I felt exactly the same. I taught and I felt better, if not normal, for exactly the duration of the classes. Then I went home and ate again. The low blood sugar was gone, but the irritated, low-blood-sugar feeling was not. Fuck.

The dissociative freeze response is meant to be a separate response from the flight or fight response. In the former, the bodymind realizes no escape, so slows and goes soft, preparing for the pain of attack. In the latter, when escape is a possibility, the body prepares to use all its resources to fight or run. The heart increases, digestion stops, we amp up. But in my experience, as a result of decades of hyperactive traumatic nervous system response, these two responses can mingle. It is really not good.

There is a tendency for clinicians to diagnose survivors as either dissociated (freeze response) or hyperaroused (flight or flight response), and it’s usually true that we tend toward one. But I’ve found that I experience both, triggered by different circumstances. Sudden movement or aggression I don’t expect and cannot control coming near me (e.g. an aggressive car in the crosswalk) or feeling trapped tends to trigger me into fight or flight. This has improved after emdr. But, almost exclusively, painful memories and emotions surfacing (flashbacks) send me into a dissociative response.

Dr. Bruce Perry pioneered the use of clonidine for hyper-aroused nervous systems (those stuck in fight or flight) and naloxone and naltrexone for the dissociated-freeze response. But what he found when dissociated patients went on these drugs is that they became irritable and anxious. Taking away their ability to float away when triggered forced them into fight or flight mode:

Ted took the medication for four weeks, during which he had no further fainting episodes. But because the drug blocked the opioid response that allowed Ted to dissociate, he now became very anxious when he faced new or stressful experiences. This is a common problem with many drugs in psychiatry, and in general medicine. A drug may be excellent at eliminating a particular symptom, but does not treat the whole person and deal with the full complexity of his problem, and therefore it may exacerbate other symptoms. In fact, we found that parents and teachers often thought that naltrexone “made the child worse” because rather than “spacing out” in response to perceived stress, many children began to have hyperarousal symptoms instead. These “fight-or-flight” reactions appeared far more disruptive to adults because the children now appeared more active, more defiant, and sometimes even aggressive. We could give clonidine to minimize hyper-arousal, but without helping the child learn alternative coping skills, the medication had no enduring effects. We ultimately decided that while there were certain cases in which naltrexone could be helpful, it had to be used with great care.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (p 192-193)

Like “You are not going to drug my baby” Mama P in the book (Chapter 4: Skin Hunger, another must read chapter about safe, predictable touch and consistent physical affection as integral in the healing of childhood neglect or abuse), I do not think pharmaceutics are an answer unless you absolutely need them to stabilize. They generally numb and cloak issues, rather than heal them.

As I came out of the dissociated response that day, I moved into fight or flight. I felt irritated and easily triggered, while still slightly dissociated. How this is possible, I do not know, but it was my experience. I went into a quiet rage for hours over a report about white European UN peacekeepers sodomizing young boys—children—they were allegedly protecting. The UN monitored the crimes and allowed them to continue. (!) They punished not the child molesters but the one man with a conscience, the sole person who had the decency to take issue outside the UN so that the raping of children by their “humanitarian” protectors might be stopped. How is this not worthy of rage?

Why are we all not in a rage? What? Who? Where? Ohhh, uncomfortable. Ah, wait, what was that? I think my facebook beeped. (More on this sort of rage next time.)

It took almost three days from that practice for my system to normalize.

What helped? A foot massage. Grounding foods. Time with friends. Practicing. Teaching. Familiarity. Calming touch. Kindness. Consistency. Love. Talking with my shrink about what he said that angered me and about my dissociated and hyper-aroused responses. Being heard, understood and respected. Specifics aside, this is what not only trauma survivors need, but what everyone needs in our anxious age, in our own unique formula. We have to map out ways to get these things (and, if and when we can, give them) consistently, so we can choose grounding and feeling what comes up when triggered, instead of dissociating.

Because as Kole beautifully illustrated in her comment on the last post, dissociating isn’t harmless. It’s not just the crash but the avoidance of ourselves that is the problem. We need to figure out how we can feel safe enough to feel what comes up and create the environment for that in advance. This can be hard, as trauma survivors often unconsciously seek scenarios and relationships that recreate the trauma—maybe because it’s the closest we got to love and affection, or maybe because we hope and aim to have some control this time around, to recreate the scenario as something we have power to change and effect.

Trauma is partially defined as having no control over oneself in a threatening situation. Some theories suggest a person will recreate their trauma in hopes of reenacting it with control and change of outcome. This was successfully navigated by little Sandy in the harrowing story of “For Your Own Good” (Chapter 2, TBWWRAAD). How likely it is one can find a safe, non-clinical venue for this sort of work is a big question though. Is it even appropriate or healthy to elicit outside of a clinical situation? Probably not.

Next time, more from the rage notebook.

on spirit and dissociation (part iii)

From last time, on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything: “But if Ehrenreich really does just chalk it up to physiology, why include the emotional precursors, without the influence they had on her biochemistry? Are we supposed to note them silently, empathize, and nod our heads in agreement with her biochemical rational, her “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors,” as if it had nothing to do with the emotional events she just detailed? Maybe we are.

On her mystical experience:

The amazing thing about the world, it struck me then in my radically dissociated state, was that I could walk into it. And thanks to my history of dissociation, which had accustomed me to strange and scary places, I was not afraid to go right on into it, one foot in front of the other…. Nothing could contain it. Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

And after:

The mundane was back to its old business of turning out copies of itself—one pretty much like the one before it—but anyone could see that effort was hopeless, that the clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened and poured into me, and I into them, but there was no way to describe it, even to myself.

first there is a mountainThat’s it. This blissful, altered state that can kick in is experienced as, and in my opinion, can be, a spiritual state. This sort of dissociation is a spiritual state that protects the sufferer from being flooded by more pain than he can process. It can happen when memories or emotions are triggered, and it can happen during an actual event.

In January I reread Elizabeth Kadetsky’s First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. I read it about a decade ago and wanted to read it again for the political stuff (e.g. Iyengar and the RSS) I only half recalled. It’s worth a read, though like everything, has its problems. When I finished, I googled Kadetsky to see what she’s been doing since. I came across this piece she wrote in 2009 for the NYT: “The Art of Defying Death.” It’s about how her yoga practice affected her experience of being followed into her apartment building and attacked. Just after she was knocked down she regained consciousness and screamed for her life:

What happened to me next in that lobby seemed no less numinous an experience than the single pointed mind-state described by the adepts as Samadhi. This is sometimes characterized as “pure awareness.” The thrill of it is said to be a manifestation of spiritual, mental and physical harmony — which may be why the medievals called yoga “the art of defying death.” Tennyson described Samadhi as “the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words.” I was in possession of no less miraculous a power than what stopped the elevator in that dream. The man paused, mid-punch. As if in reverse motion, he then coiled backwards, slowly, his center of gravity solid and low. Assured, with graceful footsteps, he loped back out that door, and then disappeared into the black night.

One person’s Samadhi is another’s dissociation. This wasn’t lost on Kadetsky:

Flashbacks, like the Samadhi described by Tennyson, exist outside the realm of language and cognition. This, say trauma therapists, explains why survivors often manifest unresolved memories of trauma in non-verbal ways — for instance as inexplicable pains in the body or through a dissociative escape reflex. Samadhi is mimicked in “moments of spiritual or material emergency,” wrote Geraldine Coster, an influential British yogi and psychotherapist, in 1944. Contemporary therapists have noted a tendency for survivors to enter that state of “pure awareness” so celebrated by the yogis during, and then repeatedly after, a trauma. This, they say, can become a bad habit. I learned this when, eventually, I did go in for counseling for P.T.S.D.This paradox has been acknowledged elsewhere. A “survivor who used dissociation to cope with terror” may eventually learn to use a “trance capability” towards otherwise enriching ends, allows Judith Herman, a pioneer psychologist in the study of trauma, in her seminal book Trauma and Recovery.

But taken as a survival mechanism, it’s not a paradox. When we are pushed past a space we can cope with rationally and emotionally into a space where we have no control over our own bodies, it seems quite a beautiful mechanism, this dissociative response. So Geraldine Coster was on to this over seventy years ago. (Oh look, in the 1940s she wrote a book called Psychoanalysis for Normal People, as well as Yoga and Western Psychology.)

For a young child who experiences this Samadhi-like ecstasy, who survives repeated trauma in its protective haze (I myself don’t experience this dissociation as “pure awareness”), remembered or not, there remains a longing for this blissful state. The mundane no longer suffices, especially if folded into a half-self of defensive protections and repressed emotions. Instead of meeting emotions, triggers and memories head on, we cling to a longing for spiritual bliss, for magic and otherworldliness. We seek it because we’ve been there, it held us, quite literally saved our lives, and we want it back. If you think it seems similar to falling into some cosmic oneness, you’d be right. But as Ehrenreich explains:  “You can never fully recapture it ever again.”

Because we’re here now. On earth, in real time, drifting in the mundane. If we want to engage in our lives fully, we need to set the longing aside and work on the difficult business of engaging in life, our emotions, our relationships, our potentials. We need to do the work. To do this requires a healthy ego, healthy separateness, and healthy attachments, which many traumatized children weren’t able to acquire developmentally, so they live a little too close to cosmic oneness to thrive in real time.

Next time, perhaps some thoughts on the slipperiness of non-attachment, non-separateness, and non-ego practices for trauma survivors, as well as a response to a comment on the last post asking how to not dissociate when it feels so good. Since writing these last three pieces, I’ve read a very helpful book on healing traumatized children that beautifully explains the dissociative response and the natural opioids that are released when it occurs. While he definitely wouldn’t call it spiritual, he does mention offhandedly that traumatized teens often seek the mystical. More on that to come.

on spirit, emotion, and dissociation (part ii)

From part i: “What you don’t hear about this kind of dissociation is that it can feel really good. The muscles, often overly rigid in a trauma survivor, go all soft, and the mind goes fuzzy and light. It can be blissful.”

lwwgbe2My experience of this, and my readings of Kalsched, got me thinking about the interplay between spiritual experience and dissociation. When I first ran across Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, the blurb said she experienced in her dissociative episodes an element of the sacred. What? The atheist muckraker is saying it!? Explaining what I’ve been thinking about, trying to figure? Someone out there surely must be. Dissociation, a psychological term first used around 1895, is suddenly all over the place.

She wasn’t. What floored me most about the “sternly objective reporter seeking truth” is that in her pursuit of the rational, she neglected the obvious—that her dissociative experiences were the direct result of intense emotional repression. (This isn’t simply my lens. It’s in the first line of the wikipedia entry.) Ehrenreich hints, but somehow seems proud of her repression. She taught herself as a young child to think in order to “keep from going under when the waters were rising”:

If I needed anything from the grown-up world, it was not some concerned professional to interrogate my feelings and direct my metaphysics onto a presumably healthier and more productive track. I needed better teachers or perhaps a kindly librarian to point out that books are meant to be consumed in a certain order and not all at once…. On the whole, despite family tensions, social isolation, the ongoing horror of puberty, and intermittent philosophical despair, I was not unhappy, or if I was, I did not see fit to write about it. There was too much going on for that…and emotions were not my natural beat.

So if she’d just read all those books in the right order everything would have been different? Does she really believe that?

She took pains to make clear her emotional life was heavily influenced by her environment. How, then, can she write emotions off as simply not her nature? It doesn’t follow.

Ehrenreich tells the story of a classic trauma survivor. She indulged heavily in fantasy, was anti-social (e.g. “At the time this [killing everyone on earth in her intricate fantasy world] did not seem like a great loss, because I had no reason to believe that humans were, on average, better company than so-called inanimate objects”), and was extremely ambivalent about human connection and engaging in life.

Though she constantly downplays her emotions and ramps up physiological factors, in the description of her major mystical experience, she draws on the emotional pain that led up to the event.

When in high school, Ehrenreich went on a road trip with a handsome friend, Dick, and her younger brother. Shortly after they left home for the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, Dick became rageful and rude:

So, a very short way into the trip, I revised my expectations downward from comradely adventure to another long, solitary exercise in endurance. Any anger I felt was not directed at my inscrutable companion, but Joseph Conrad and all the other novelists who had been urging me to reach out, take a chance, carpe diem, and so forth. I should have stayed at home and read Kafka…. The pleasures of human company had been exaggerated, I realized…. I dealt with my disappointment by sheer force of mind. I erased Dick. I suspended belief in him. Who knows if any other person really exists? The great advantage of my slippery, on-and-off form of solipsism was that I did not have to live with the burden of other people’s inexplicable anger or rejection….

I had done what the poets and novelists were always urging me to do, I had reached out to another human with some companionable intent, and look what happened….

…Then the awful anger and shame that filled that little car, which were to set the stage for what followed, originated with my father, along with the idea of skiing.

Though she acknowledges anger and shame set the stage for what followed, she rejects the sheer force of emotion repressed and chalks what is to come up to low blood sugar, high stress hormones, and sleep deprivation: “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors like exhaustion and hypoglycemia, the truth arrives in all its blinding glory, but with two conditions attached to it: one, that you can never speak of it, even to yourself, and two, that you can never fully recapture it ever again.”

But if she really does just chalk it up to physiology, why spend so much time on the emotional precursors, without the influence they had on her biochemistry? Are we supposed to note them silently, empathize, and nod our heads in agreement with her biochemical rational, her “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors,” as if it had nothing to do with the emotional events she just detailed? Maybe we are. Throughout the entire book she writes on about her buried emotional pain, even its repression, but at the same time negates their effects by ascribing her mystical experience to “incidental physiological factors,” as if she’s trying to tell us she’s above all this and she knows this is all just a bio-chemical storm of sorts.

If that’s the case, why did her “neurotransmitter-induced” depression kick in when her marriage and community went south and not when she was happily engaged in her family and professional life? While we all have biochemical predispositions, they are profoundly affected by our environment. That her biochemical predispositions could have been set up by the trauma she suffered in childhood is at least as likely as an inborn genetic susceptibility (see Bruce Perry and, again, van der Kolk).

Next week, I’ll get to her mystical experience, and why it seems trauma survivors so often seek magic, altered states of consciousness, and spirituality.

on spirit and dissociation (part i)

This spiritual experience business is difficult. How to explain the relationship I see between trauma, specifically dissociation, and spiritual experience? It feels clumsy.

lwwgbeIn March, I happened on a book by social activist Barbara Ehrenreich: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. It helped, and I’m going to lean on it because it is precisely what she’s missed that I want to talk about.

Ehrenreich was “trained as a scientist” (she has a PhD in cellular immunology). We know, consciously or not, what this means in our culture. It means she learned what she was supposed to learn in the way our society deems most valuable. We no longer look to religion or God for answers, but to science. Never mind that science is as easily corrupted and used to manipulate people as religion. I mean no disrespect to scientists. They know very well how little we know and how few answers we have.

Ehrenreich found she couldn’t resolve her “search for the truth about everything” through science. After she finished her PhD, she became a journalist with a fiercely rational, atheist bent. In Living with a Wild God, she tries to reconcile a mystical experience she had as a teen with her intensely rational world view:

It hadn’t been until I reached my forties that I discovered that what happened to me, or something very similar, has also happened to many other people, and that some of them had even found ways of talking about it, although usually in a vocabulary and framework foreign to me, if not actually repulsive. The conventional term is “mystical experience,” meaning something that by its very nature lies beyond the reach of language, except for some vague verbal hand-wavings about “mystery” and “transcendence.” As far as I was concerned—as a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training—this was the realm of gods and fairies and of no use to the great human project of trying to retain a foothold on the planet for future generations.

Or, as she says in a previous paragraph, it has little to do with how to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world.

[If you want page numbers, drop me a line. WP doesn’t footnote well. All quotes are from Living with a Wild God.]

The book is of special interest to me because her hyper-rationalist lens used to be my primary defense mechanism and is still very much at play in my psyche. This defense forecloses the ability to engage fully in life (as defenses tend to do) and to see the bigger picture. How, I’d ask Ehrenreich, are we to reduce cruelty in the world at large if we are not open to our own pain and emotions? She tries to speak of her younger self’s suffering empathetically, but it comes off as stilted by her rationality:

My mother’s first suicide attempt, in early September 1964, barely grazed me, which is to say that I successfully fended it off. I didn’t give much thought at this point to other people’s emotional states, except as a subject for theoretical exploration, and least of all hers, probably since I’d expended so much of my childhood energy trying to avoid being sucked into her personal vortex of anger and disappointment.

This is what we rationalists do. We make a story to justify why we cannot explore not only our mother’s pain, but our own. Or worse, to pretend that we have. While Ehrenreich may come off as rational and cool, her last sentence (and perhaps the entire book) suggests a wound she wants us to acknowledge. But how can we take it in when she can’t? To be fair, how does she process it, shaped by a culture that rewards concretism and rationality and punishes sensitivity and emotion? She makes clear that rationalism got her through life quite successfully and she respects that, holds on to it. But she also makes clear that an important part of her feels numb and not quite alive.

Ehrenreich details a chaotic, sometimes violent, sometimes loving childhood that she escaped by dissociation. In this case, by thinking:

The original lure of thinking was only in part as a tool for problem solving. The main thing was that it beat the alternatives—panic, for example, and terror…. When I must have been eight or younger, I had a rule: “Think in complete sentences.” No giving way to inner screams or sobs—just keep stringing out words in grammatical order. This was a way to keep from going under when the waters were rising, for example, on one of those pale winter Sunday afternoons that my father spent “resting” on the couch, drinking until the rest deepened into what we euphemized as sleep….

I get this. By age five I’d deduced there was no tooth fairy, no santa claus, and no God. They just did not make sense, practically. By thirteen, I was curious about Buddhism. The idea of spirituality without a God struck at something deep within me. By twenty, I was no longer an atheist, more agnostic, and that grew into a belief in something sacred and, largely, too ineffable to explain. Basically, I believe something sacred runs through all life. It encompasses good and bad, is neither and both.

This belief is symptomatic of a different sort of dissociation within me—a split. One part of me is stubbornly rational, and another spiritual and intuitive. Healing this split is something I work on here.

Dissociation has a few psychological meanings. It can refer to splitting, which is commonly explained as seeing people or things as all good or all bad, instead of holding both. But it can also be splitting parts of ourselves we can’t hold at once, as in my example above, or, say, our need for closeness and our need for space. Everyone uses the splitting defense at times. At its extremes, it shows up in multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative personality disorder).

Dissociation can also refer to a detachment from reality. It can be a mild sense of feeling disconnected from the world, which most people experience at some time in their lives. It can be more extreme, as in the disorienting experience of floating or fuzziness some trauma survivors have during and after a traumatic event, or Ehrenreich’s mystical experience of intense other-worldliness and bliss.

This was my first understanding of dissociation, this sense of floating up and away from my body and what’s going on in the here and now. It was explained to me as an intense escape from my physical and emotional experience, especially if something threatening nears consciousness. It is also a defense against intense, unfathomable emotional and/or physical pain. You’ve heard about people floating up out of their bodies and watching a traumatic event from above, as if they were looking down on someone else. This is also dissociation. It is associated with the “playing dead” or “freeze” response (see van der Kolk).

What you don’t hear about this kind of dissociation is that it can feel really good. The muscles, often overly rigid in a trauma survivor, go all soft, and the mind goes fuzzy and light. It can be blissful.

I’ll stop here, for an eye break. To be continued next week.

*Readings of Donald Kalsched have also influenced this piece. I’ll get to him later.

trigger mind

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Perhaps I’ve been slow with the “how to practice when triggered” piece because it’s something I’m still working on myself. I cannot guide this, only share my experience. It hovers in unsafe territory.

It’s become fashionable for yogis who are upset with their lives to put out diatribes that announce the writer’s own sizable issues momentarily, while the bulk of the piece tears down their teachers, style of practice, and community.

To this I say, “Shut up.” “Yeah, I have issues” should not be followed by a “but.” “Yeah, I have issues” means, “Yeah, I don’t see very clearly.” It should be followed by a profound self-examination with the best help you can find, not a public broadside of others’ faults.

This is one reason I stall. When I do write about my practice here, I worry that people could take it as a statement about my teachers, past or present. That’s fine if you think, “Her teachers must be awesome.” It’s not fine if you judge them poorly. This is not about my teachers. I do not think they are perfect or infallibleit would be a problem if I did. Allowing space for others’ humanity (ie our teachers are not gods) is an important part of meeting reality. But that is not what this is about.

It’s about practicing when triggered.

If you want to practice as a trauma survivor in a space not designated as such, you have to figure out how to deal with that. You will be triggered. I am working on it, and though it won’t be obvious from this piece, I’ve come a long way.

Sometimes it’s minor, and I can practice through it and calm myself down with breath. Those are days the shala is not so crowded, or someone I find soothing is practicing near me. Today was not one of those days.

I haven’t figured out how to cope when it’s crowded, which means maybe 6-8 inches between mats. I try to time it so that I’m there when it’s not packed, but this is not always predictable, and part of me feels like I should be able to do it. Today was not even half full when I arrived, and I was relieved. But then, at the end of my sun salutations, Teacher asked us to move over and make room for one more.

One more was daddy long legs.

Some people are extremely considerate in their practice. They leave fair berth between their body parts and those around them, by taking arms straight up instead of out to the sides, for example. Others don’t. In fact, to be fair, that’s part of the practice culture.

“Most in that room have been through primary series 1,000 times at least, and if SKPJ was right, that’s enough to give up…minding the 6 extra limbs on your mat as if they were other from your own.” (InsideOwl).

This is in no way an indictment of Owl, whose writing and being I adore. It’s just a perfect example of the “we are all one/you are territorial if you need space” yoga discourse. The glorification NYC-20121029of non-separateness in yoga and meditation scenes has long struck me as problematic because many people lack safe boundaries. While touching base with our non-separateness on a regular basis is in some ways the crux of a spiritual practice, in reality, we cycle through many states during practice, non-separateness being only one of them. We absolutely need healthy boundaries to thrive.

This is especially so for trauma survivors. Let’s say, hypothetically, you were abused as a small child. You would have learned very, very early (before your mind had learned full separateness, in fact) that your body was not your own, and you had no ability to keep the limbs of another from violating it. Extra limbs on your mat, or worse, one coming toward you from the periphery, incite a terror and rage far, far beyond some individualistic, territorial grab for space. But because a “separateness trip” is against the rules of the practice, you are in a real pickle.

This is not limited to ashtanga. It runs through the yoga culture at large. I’m not suggesting we change the culture. It is what it is. We should be aware, though.

I probably just shouldn’t practice when it’s crowded. But some days it’s okay. And I want to. I want to think I can do it by now, after all this time.

I’ve never told my teacher that I’m a trauma survivor. I’ve only practiced there not quite 1½ yrs, and I’m still afraid. The few previous times I’m mentioned it to a teacher (always meditation), I was met with a condescending smile and dismissive nod. They didn’t get it and didn’t careI was just another person with another acronymed issue looking for special care. This wouldn’t be my teacher’s reaction now, but also, I just don’t want to be labeled in this way. I want to be like everyone else.

So, in comes daddy long limbs. Pretty much every time I am triggered in practice, it is from bodies flailing above me or in the periphery, made worse by my lack of depth perception. He’s practiced next to me before and I made a note to avoid in the future. But in he came. So now I was wedged between him and a girl I’d practiced near before and liked well enough. I hoped she’d provide energetic comfort, and continued my last salutation.

By padahastasana (moments later), I’d already been triggered by his limbs moving in my near periphery. It wasn’t his fault and in those first moments I knew that, before trigger-mind took over.

By prasarita padottanasana I wondered if I could leave without anyone noticing and just finish, and calm myself, at home. But I hoped I could calm myself there and didn’t want to look like an asshole. By utthita hasta padangusthasana, the girl next to me dropped her towel on the mid-front of my mat, right where my right foot belonged. Ordinarily I could ignore it pretty well, but triggered, I could not. She picked it up, used it, and set it back down even more expansively in the mid-front of my mat. Then a third time.

Sometimes I can ignore these type things and not interpret them as excessively aggressive. I am sure I unwittingly make these same transgressions, though consciously I try like mad to keep my shit to myself. When I am triggered, I cannot. In fact, I cannot feel my body, and have only the slightest influence over my breath, though this has improved over time. When I am triggered, my separate mind takes over and tries to make up for the boundaries transgressed.

Why the fuck did she need to place her towel on top of me when she could easily have placed it in the two feet of empty space in front of us? I’d have loved to throw it onto the middle of her mat. A year ago, I might have. The reason I didn’t was not noble but because I knew full well that I would punish myself for a month or more, fantasizing about who saw and how harshly they judged me.

Then I imagined, with some envy, just how entitled this person must feel to throw her sweaty dregs on top of me. Not once, but three times. This is just the type of behavior our culture rewards. Ah, the lucky ones.

By now I was in dandasana and my mind had completely filled with this rageful, delusive chatter. She was getting an assist from a teacher. In his presence she set it not on my mat but in the space between us, creeping only a few centimeters onto my mat and fingers. I flicked it away with my hand.

What a cunt.

At this point the idea of leaving the shala had totally fled my mind. It would have been time. I did find the momentary clarity to deepen my breath and try to slow down. My practice speeds when I’m triggered and I just try to get through it. But by triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana I slowed and tried to feel my body. I noticed my desire for help, my wondering if someone would help me, and even briefly flirted with the possibility I could ask for help. These had flitted faintly amongst my rageful thoughts and gained ground with breath.

I sped up again. I couldn’t ask for help. It was crowded. They were busy. If he didn’t react in exactly the right way (whatever that was, I have no idea) I would be devastated far, far beyond the damage of being triggered the rest of practice and working through it myself.

By janu sirsasana, I tried to slow and feel again. I usually find these poses soothing, with plenty of sensation to explore. I lengthened my breath and could feel a bit. Then fast, the terror that my rage presses back broke over me. I teared. No way. I couldn’t do it. The teachers I know best, the ones most likely to notice I was amok, weren’t there. I couldn’t break open in the middle of this crowd. Lord knows what would come up. Not an option. I sped up again, even faster.

I gave myself over to the rage again, and felt it smash back my terror and grief with no effort at all. 01-NYC-20100420It produced violent thoughts and I watched them, entertained them even (should I admit it?), relieved that they came to the surface, freed from the recesses of my psyche where ego keeps them chained, turned outward instead of in. I went faster.

Soothing poses I gave 5 short breaths, difficult poses or those requiring space, 3. I moved at five times my usual snail’s pace and kept my eyes shut as much as possible. By dhanurasana, I thought I might burst again. I didn’t. Urdhva dhanurasana. Standing, waiting, feeling my heart pound madly against my ribs, I felt my shoulders hunched forward, turtling me inward even after backbends. Shame. Then a soft touch on my back and my teacher’s gentle presence. Gentle. Kind.

A miracle. Not his bearing but my read of it. A first. Always before, each time I was triggered, this time by far the worst, or maybe just the most consciously felt, I projected judgement and anger onto my teachers, felt it coming from them in tight bursts. Not today. There is a fragment of hope.

Closing sequence. No room to move forward. New neighbors, more space. I stayed. These poses calm me and I take my time in them, usually and today, hoping to steady my heart. A quick shavasana and chant.

I rolled my mat. The back near the restrooms was crowded. I was a bit damp with sweat, but could not wait to change. I had to get out into space. I stuffed my jeans into my bag. The zipper broke, slowed me down, I fumbled with it. Grabbed my coat and shoes, my teacher at the desk behind me now. Did he sense my energy? See my body quaking? I hoped not and so.

The street! Tears. Sunshine. I walked long to the water, street blocked by the construction of another crass new sky rise luxury apartment complex. Turned north and then west again. Walked, cried, still numb but relieved, wanting the ocean but letting the river soothe me instead.

on teaching yoga to the anxious or traumatized. and for practitioners, too.

Forget what I said last time. I spent all day in the human room. We are all traumatized.

I loved the Time Out New York cover a few weeks ago that read: “Are we anxious because we’re New Yorkers or are we New Yorkers because we’re anxious?” because it’s something I’ve long considered. New York City is the only place I’ve ever felt at home, and the reason may be that the pace is in line with my nervous system’s baseline. Relaxing (or trying to) once made me nervous. This is true for a large number of New Yorkers and a fair number of my students.

I do not know much about anxiety as it exists apart from trauma, but I have wondered a bit if there’s some sort of spectrum of trauma we inhabit in the post-postmodern age. When I sat down to write this post, I websearched it. Low and behold, there’s a book: The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. It looks like it could be good.

I am kidding and I’m not. There is a lot of anxiety out there, and many, many yoga students exhibit strong symptoms of trauma survival. Or is it just anxiety? In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Recently, wanting a break from all the trauma books and to remind myself that everyone suffers (constantly viewing life through the lens of trauma is irritating, I agree), I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, about six alcoholic American writers. But gawd, it was no break. They all exhibited major symptoms of trauma survival. If you doubt my objectivity, by page 38, Laing makes the same observation. This had me thinking about art and creativity as healing or distraction. Screw yoga already.

Is it post-trauma or is it anxiety? It doesn’t matter (in my opinion of the moment) but for this: trauma survivors are apt to be triggered into sympathetic nervous system hyperarousal, aka fight/flight/freeze, and if you are, it’s important to know it. If you don’t, you may just experience triggering as profound irritation, which is extremely frustrating to navigate when it can’t be OM’ed or CBT’ed away.

humanRoom03Teaching yoga to a group of trauma survivors can be easier than teaching survivors in general population classes. In a class of survivors, we know what is going on. The issues are front and center and we work with them as best we can. It’s not easy, but it is spoken, it is on the table, and everyone there knows we are in the company of other survivors. This helps to create a space where the work of healing trauma, via deep, patient attention to body, breath, and mind, can occur.

In classes for the general population, this is not the case. A year ago I read a series of posts on HuffPo that demanded all yoga teachers be trained to tailor their classes to suit the needs of trauma survivors lest a student be triggered.

As a yoga teacher and trauma survivor, I find this ridiculous. While I agree that there are many trauma survivors in general yoga classes and basic information on trauma would be a helpful addition to trainings 1) most yoga teacher trainings are worthless and 2) the idea that not touching humanRoom04people, or asking to touch in a certain voice, or not using straps in case it triggers a bound trauma for someone, or ad nauseum, ignores the critical fact that pretty much anything can potentially trigger a trauma survivor. A red shirt. A certain song. A whiff of patchouli. Getting assistance. Not getting assistance. Doing a pose. Not doing a pose. Physical exertion. A fleeting shadow. A strong breeze.

Peter Levine explains in his book In An Unspoken Voice:

Consider your response to the fleeting shadow, the subtle gesture of another person or a distant sound. Each of these events can invoke in us survival-bound responses without our ever being aware that something in our environment has triggered them. Notably, when we have been traumatized, we are particularly sensitized to (and hyperaroused by) these fleeting stimuli. Our senses of seeing, hearing and smell provide countless stimuli that cause us to overreact, humanRoom05even though we may be unaware of the presence of those subliminal stimuli, and our premotor responses to them (p 319).

If a yoga class is not specifically geared to trauma survivors, the endless possible modifications quickly becomes ridiculous. It also caters to the self-victimization of survivors, which is unhelpful (not to be confused with the original victimization, which is another issue).

We need to remember that yoga teachers are not psychologists, healers, or our mommies. Yoga is not a panacea, and the average Rihanna-blaring, handstandy, love-and-lighty yoga class is not where a trauma survivor should look to heal unless she’s going to take innumerable factors into her own hands. We cannot walk into a room and expect everyone to change their teaching methods, much less ways of being, to meet our needs. It’s neither helpful or acceptable. Do you really want everyone to tiptoe around you? I don’t.humanRoom06

Let’s be honest. We trauma survivors are a highly annoying population. As students, we often need a lot of attention. Or we (pretend we) want none. We have no boundaries. We come early or late, dawdle after, monopolize the teacher’s time, and make weird, disturbing noises in class (and I don’t mean the occasional whimper or grunt). If we have boundaries, we are Fort Knox. We need space. We complain (yes, even after yoga. wt??). We dislike the conditions of the room. It is too hot. Too cold. Too loud. Too breezy. Too crowded. Too smelly. Too dirty. Too chatty. Too early. Too late. We are moody and we project those moods on our teachers’ and fellow students’ behavior toward us. We do not make enough money to pay and if we make plenty we still whinge about it. We snarl that we “know our bodies” when truly we are violently dissociated from them and do not. We are massive control freaks—about our bodies, our practice, and everything else. humanRoom07Our issues are boundless. They are also disruptive to the class and other students.

If you think that the average yoga teacher is equipped to handle this energy because he is spiritual and wants to help, you are wildly incorrect. If you believe it is his or her ethical responsibility to do so, you are incorrect again. These issues are difficult for long-trained therapists to handle. That you expect it from a twenty-something who wants to help you blossom after his month of “transformative” teacher training? Lordy. Reevaluate.

Yes, it sucks. It does seem that we are the ones always having to reevaluate. We didn’t ask to be traumatized or triggered or have our bodies and being turn against us.

But if we can drop the self-pitying victim bullshit, this subtle suggestion that everyone owes us something because we were traumatized and feel we have nothing, reevaluation empowers. I want to underline that 500 times. humanRoom08Did you get it? Reevaluate and take responsibility for your behavior now, even if it was triggered by inconceivably unfair events of your past for which you bear no responsibility. That at your core, you believe you were responsible and hate yourself for it is another matter that, yes, does get in the way of everything. Still try.

So, how to do yoga as a trauma survivor if you don’t have or want classes designated as such? More on that next time (preview: observing your triggered state must become part of your practice). Also to come is a bit on kinds of emotion, pseudo-emotion, too much emotion, i.e. what I mean when I talk about emotion. Also maybe some stuff on creativity, but who knows.

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Comic by Daryl Seitchik. Check out her tumblr. It is great.

coccoyoga name change coming soon

There’s a name & domain change coming soon, so if you subscribe by rss you will need to update your feed. If you are subscribed by email, you’re automatically taken care of. The next post (written but not yet edited) will be up at popomoyoga.com (yoga for post-postmodern life). CoccoYoga will forward there, but for a few days when the domain name transfers.

I’ve tumbled into writing a long bit that needs more clarification. I may break them up into a series once entirely written instead of posting as I write a 1000 words or so. Til then, enjoy the sunshine. ~A

quiz: wait. am i a traumatized yogi?

There’s been a lot of talk about yoga and trauma of late (especially here). It may beg the question: “Wait. I think and act like this sometimes. I’m not traumatized.”

“Am I?”

Some argue that everyone is traumatized in the post-post-modern era. While we certainly live in an age of anxiety (Kali Yuga for sure), and anxiety sufferers may experience life in similar ways, not everyone has been traumatized. Trauma is not an abstraction or a dramatic manner of describing experience.

Clinically, trauma survivors suffer from PTSD, survivors of repeated trauma (e.g. child abuse) CPTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I avoid these labels as I find them unhelpful. They flatten human experience and elicit cliché. They are, however, extremely accurate regarding the symptoms and experiences of trauma survivors. If you are curious, Judith Herman’s beautiful Trauma and Recovery is the book to read:

At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.

Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence or death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’

The ordinary human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind. Threat initially arouses the sympathetic nervous system, causing the person in danger to feel an adrenaline rush and go into a state of alert…. Finally, threat evokes intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive reactions. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or in flight.

Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the danger is over. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Moreover, traumatic events may sever these normally integrated functions from one another. The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why. Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and take on a life of their own. pp 33-34.

The worst fear of any traumatized person is that the moment of horror will recur, and this fear is realized in victims of chronic abuse. Not surprisingly, the repetition of trauma amplifies all the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. p 86.

Unprocessed feelings of intense anger and fear become locked into the body and unconscious mind, waiting for release, easily triggered by sights and sounds that would not phase someone with a relaxed nervous system. Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice offers a remarkable explanation from a medical perspective. He explains why and how trauma becomes frozen in the body, and what to do about it. Another must read.

Avoid most common internet literature, usually about veterans, often asking why some people suffer shell shock (the WWI appellation) and others don’t. C/PTSD is the normal human biological reaction to devastating events that cannot be integrated into a person’s larger experience often due to the level of horror, as well as a lack of understanding, empathy and support. Herman underlines the social complications of trauma recovery, which we’ve seen much of in the media lately, e.g. victim blaming in rape cases. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering” (Trauma and Recovery, p 7).

Since I began writing about yoga and trauma, several students, colleagues, and friends have come out to me as trauma survivors. As Herman says, trauma is not rare. Nor is it imagined. Survivors have many biological markers that identify them (low heart rate variability, HRV, among others). It has raised a lot of questions for me about yoga and trauma, teaching survivors in designated classes and out, in classes for the general population. (More on this next time.)

My own yoga practice has often been subsumed by observing my traumatic reactions: fight or flight in asana practice, and freeze (dissociation) in asana and meditation. This only began after years and years of practice, when I finally found enough safety (through a solid, caring relationship) to explore. It was an opening of sorts.

Before when agitated in practice, I just numbed out. A vigorous practice can be good for that, with the endorphins and all. (This, in my honest observations, is how most people practice yoga. Like athletes who force and train the body, rather than being in and of it.) I didn’t experience my anxiety or nerves. It was all on lockdown, deeply repressed. I can pretend nothing bothers me better than most, and when my nervous system is agitated and I feel unsafe, I often do just that. Sometimes, I numb and float upward. It can actually feel pretty good, especially when my muscles go all soft and give up.

But the racing heart and shortness of breath of a challenging practice can also trigger hyperarousal and shift me into fight or flight. I shut down feeling and move faster, trying to break free.

Even when I feel safe and calm, sending breath and awareness into long held parts of my body brings up energy (and emotions and memories) I’m not sure what to do with. It can be scary. One’s own body is not a safe place for trauma survivors. No where is.

This, though, I have to work with and through, because ignoring feeling, shutting down, numbing out, strengthens the ingrained patterns of traumatic reflex. Forever I have fought between maintaining my status quo, which has gotten me through fairly well in some ways, which on some levels I like, and the change healing demands.

None of this is to say that my years of practice before I opened to all all this, when I numbed out and so on, were not beneficial on deeply healing levels, much deeper than, say, running around a track. They certainly were. I do believe it was my practice (yoga and meditation) that got me to a place where I could finally trust someone and begin the baby steps toward feeling and integration. That is the thing. While we’d love a one-step fix, healing these types of wounds requires care and effort from all angles: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, cognitive, etc.

Thank you for reading :)   Anastasia

how to feel awesome [?]: self-soothing vs self-care

There was some helpful, interesting feedback on the last post, yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you, about how we often use yoga and meditation to stay right where we are rather than to help us see and behave more clearly.

Giulia, an art historian, had two remarks. First, well, can’t we just have some fun? Second, some self-soothing is necessary and helpful.

Of course we can have fun. Holy linoleum. We need fun, and there’s definitely an element of fun in my classes. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily stern in my writing, it’s just that most of us have the fun part down. Fun is healing in and of itself.

And, yes, self-soothing is necessary and helpful. Absolutely. I did mention that: “Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing…. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky.” Giulia concurred. This is an especially difficult question.

Sarah, a yoga teacher in the final throes of her psych doctorate, gets at the same thing. She wrote that the post, “got me thinking about difference / overlap? between soothing and self-care.”

Self-care requires more discernment. Sometimes self-care is sitting down to work instead of going to the beach. And sometimes it’s going to the beach instead of staying at your desk. (How to know which is a question for later.) Self-soothing is more of an emergency practice. When the nervous system has been jolted into sympathetic response, known colloquially as freaking out, it’s time to soothe.

The problem is when we self-soothe for kicks, because it feels nice, or maybe it’s habit. Trauma survivors, and perhaps everyone, take refuge in fantasy, good and bad, quite a lot. Even to the point of living there. Yoga and meditation can be excellent tools to spot it and back off (as it’s so ingrained in our realities, it’s harder than you think). Or they can be tools of spiritual bypass, by trading one set of fantasies for another.

For example, instead of imagining that your teacher, about whom you know nothing, really, is a controlling, unspiritual bitch because she calls you out when you come to class late (frequently), you get spiritual and pretend that her comments do not affect you because we are all whole and one and you do not need her guidance or acceptance in the banal material realm. This is bullshit. You are not “healed,” and on some level, you know it.

A trauma survivor may go further and fantasize that the teacher doesn’t want him there, will invalidate his class card, ran into his sister on the street and talked mess about him, somehow knows his boss and…ad nauseum.

But then! When he is in a good mood (or the teacher is—the anxious are always sussing the Other’s mood in attempt to stay safe), she’s nurturing, informative, and generally awesome. His imagination spins wildly in this direction. Next thing you know, his wife is into polyamory, Teacher has revealed her unmanageable desire for him, unlike his wife she adores his poetry, and they’re off on an extended trip to…ad nauseum.

It is self-soothing on a rampage, and trauma survivors often live there, in the ups and downs of their imaginations. Here self-care is required. When a glimmer of reality breaks in, it’s back to the breath. But that comforting fantasy can be as difficult (more?) to abandon as nicotine for a smoker.

The breath is not quite as much fun. Not quite (yet) as soothing.

Back to lateness and the controlling teacher. If the breath is not breaking your fantasies open you could:

  • Observe how you feel when she calls you out and suss what’s going on there. Then leave it for later and come back to your breath.
  • Later, when you are alone, observe in retrospect how you feel. Go into your breath and feel. Yes, we know you don’t breathe sometimes, because if you breathe you will feel, and if you feel you will break. But now you are alone, and safe, so feel. Break if you want. You will come back.
  • Look very closely at the reasons you always show up late. Check yourself. (Please consult yoga etiquette 101 & yoga etiquette 201.) Are your excuses valid? Do you really believe them? No one else does, but worse, in seconds of stone cold honesty, you don’t either.
  • Actually have a conversation with her about it (this is the hard one) so that the issue is pulled out of your fantasy realm and down to earth.

You will learn that your teacher is nurturer and bitch, but for reasons you hadn’t fathomed, having nothing to do with you. It is an enormous load off, if you can let go of the fantasies. But those fantasies have protected you through unspeakable, unfeelable things. Soon you’re shocked to find that it’s the manic ones that are trouble. It’s easy to peer under the heavy trips, as we don’t (consciously) like them, but the happy fantasies brighten our day and give us hope. What are we without them? Underneath they are bolstered by the same terror, grief and rage that spin the negative. Stepping back, they are one and the same.

It is daunting, but also fascinating and human. Self-soothing allows us to calm our system, self-care allows us to slowly shift toward health. Though when to do which can be difficult to discern, when we check in, and we’re honest, we know very well.

yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you

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I’ve had little to say here of late. My thoughts on yoga are all over the place, which inevitably seem too intertwined with thoughts on life to give them voice here. How to separate and distill? It’s a practice, so I’m here. I could be swimming in the ocean, but I’m here.

One looming theme in my recent intimate conversations is just how far we go, how many tales we tell, how many distractions we seduce to avoid our pain. The (Buddhist?) idea that suffering is what we create when we refuse to face and feel our pain is intensely accurate.

But how do we call the original pain up to be felt when it’s been refused for so long? How do we find (carve?) a safe space to explore the depths of our misery? This question is complicated for trauma survivors, whose emotions and memories have been chopped up and scattered within to protect us from the unfathomable, rendered unconscious but unforgotten in the nonverbal, primitive brain. It’s a difficult question for everyone, traumatized or not.

Our friends, families and communities, wanting to see us happy, may brush off our anguish with it-happened-for-a-reason-esque platitudes or unhelpful analyses. Unfamiliar with their own pain, they may be quick to minimize ours. Health professionals are quick to medicate and pathologize any behavior or emotion presented them. “Grief? I have just the thing for that!” the doctor quips as she scribbles out another prescription. And the happy affects, those must be at acceptable levels, lest you be labeled manic III-bipolar, or whatever diagnosis is trending this year. Even spiritual counselors—helpers of all kinds, really—condescend with false compassion or stone cold silence. I’m given to the latter.

Someone exploring her fear and insecurity may quickly trigger the Helper’s own unexamined vulnerabilities, and suddenly Explorer is scapegoated as weak, emotional, or out-of-control. Heavy. She’s shoved to arm’s length with fake compassion and a weighted stare. I’ve been there, on both sides. Preferred is the awkward rawness of an honest, present silence, which comes sometimes, when the strength is summoned.

Though vulnerability was all the rage on your tedtalks last year, I’ve seen no trickle down, no real time embracing of our pain, to say nothing of our ugliness and evil. It’s always out there. It’s Her. Or them. Very, very few of us have done the work of facing our pain. Without it, real, engaged compassion is impossible.

So. How do we do it? There is this ungodly pull to pretend we are nurturing ourselves when in fact we’re just numbing out. Or distracting ourselves. Or maintaining.

Like many, I excel at maintaining. I watch carefully what keeps me going, what keeps me floating above the morass. As early as my undergrad years I found that if I kept myself extremely busy, so busy I felt like a robot much of the time and dropped into bed of exhaustion each night, I did not feel depressed. I didn’t actually feel much at all, but I didn’t notice that until later.

Years later I’m much more subtle. Yoga soothes me, as does the ocean. And books. If I’m feeling a bit off, or fear I might soon, I’ll drink an afternoon coffee to perk me up. Maybe an innocuous stimulant, but it definitely sweeps me up and away from my pain. I know how often I must schedule time with friends to avoid loneliness. I know how to practice so I feel, and I know how to practice to numb myself. Why would I ever choose the latter? Sometimes it’s the only choice.

The soothing. Most of us know how to self-sooth, whether we call it that or not. Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing. Especially for trauma survivors. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky. I read a comment about a post I’d written on yoga and trauma on a reposter’s fbook page. Someone unbeknownst to me wrote, “That’s probably all these people can manage, anything to just get them through the day.”

This may be true of the newly traumatized and the most dire, but the majority of us eventually come to a place where we are much like everyone else. We just fly into flight, fright, or freeze mode far more quickly than average. Still, you cannot generally pick us in a crowd. We want to engage with life and thrive too. We want more than to just get through the day. Don’t you?

Everyone needs a safe space for this, inside ourselves as well as out, and self-soothing plays a role. But when the nervous system settles, we need to probe a bit and feel our emotions, to face and integrate our terror. It’s a dangerous place, but it has to be done. It is impossible to meaningfully engage in life without accessing our humanity and our emotions and using them to steer our lives. It is just impossible. Those little machinations you have for keeping safe? They are killing you softly. Stop it.

If it seems I am speaking only to trauma survivors, I am not. I speak to everyone for whom this resonates.

And then there’s the problem of everything. Everything quick and shiny and soon. Our culture teaches us that if we feel bad, instead of feeling it, investigating it, going inside it, we should make haste to feel better. This ubiquitous fantasy that when we find the right job, the right diet, the right partner, the right asana, the right teacher, the right shiny green t-shirt, we will be healed. Until then (soon!), a fabulous snack will do.

The prevalent idea that shifting your mood so you feel better for the afternoon (maintaining) is somehow healing your pain is a tease. It does not. Affirmations, slogans, positivity clichés disguised as spiritual wisdom—another coffee or a swim in the Atlantic, whatever your tricks—may work for the short term, but if you’re refusing your pain, the nagging, rotting sense that your world will collapse (your health is failing you, your boss will retaliate, your kid is unsafe, whatever your demon vrittis) will still gyrate underneath, lurching up just when you thought you were clear. This will not go away with a few magic tantric breaths or a weekend workshop.

It is inane. There is no way to heal without walking straight into your pain.

And for $2500, I will tell you how.

Haha. Not really. Til next time. ~Anastasia

yoga mat as security blanket :: break it in

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Mid-air I crashed. Bodymind lurched into panic, blackness. I felt myself tangled then searing pain. My left knee. What happened? Someone said, “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” I couldn’t see her, only indefinite forms moving around me. I sat on my mat holding my knee, trying to breathe. Recycled, unexpected terror, unknowing, pain, humiliation and confusion expressed itself in the only emotion I know how to express when afraid. Anger.

“Yes. I. am. okay,” I gritted my teeth in reply. To whom, I don’t know. I couldn’t see. I sat, trying to breath, trying not to cry, hurting. Needing help but not wanting any more of a scene, I just sat. It seemed that crying or limping off the floor were not options, so I did the only thing I know how to do with pain. I kept going. I practiced. I found downward dog and I finished, angry, hurt, and humiliated. Irate that after all this time, I still cannot ask for help. Cannot come out of my shell. I imagine that to the observer, I looked territorial and punishing, making a scene because someone was on my mat, in my space. Never mind I was hurt. I said I was okay.

My self-hatred and masochism felt infinite.

What happened? I don’t even know. I don’t wear my glasses, usually, and I can’t see much without them. Even with them, I have little depth perception because of my left eye. I cannot tell for certain how close or far things are from me. When the shala is crowded, my sympathetic nervous system takes over and keeps watch for possible assault. I deal with this through my breath, but largely, I practice over it. Or under it. I’m not sure.

These protective systems are not easy to shift. But I watch them. And they do shift, millimeters at a time.

So what happened? What I know is that I was jumping back, I think from Ardha Baddha Padma Paścimottānāsana. I hit something soft, someone, midair and the impact forced my left knee into the ground at the speed of my jumpback. Hard. I felt darkness and panic for a split second, then heard “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” I couldn’t see her, though, and I didn’t know who it was. There was a guy practicing behind me, I’d thought. But this woman was somehow on my mat when I jumped back. What, why, and who, I still do not know. “Was it my teacher?” I wondered as I finished, because sometimes they walk across mats in their hurry to reach someone. But I think I’d recognize her energy and voice. I don’t think it was, but I’m not totally sure. I hoped not. I hoped I could accept her help, were it offered. But I don’t know.

Was it my fault? Should I have seen? Shame and pain around my eyes, my sight, my inability to move my left eye into drishti comes up for me a lot of late. I never knew.

My knee is ok. I landed at the top, more on my quad and femur, and though it is bruised, hurts to bend with pressure on it (e.g. Utkatasana), and pops frequently, I can still practice. It will heal and I will live. It was mostly a painful look at my inability to ask for help, my inability to break through my defensive anger and show my pain, fear and vulnerability, my longing and desperation to feel protected, cared for, and safe. And nursing myself through that, dragging myself against hellish resistance to practice each following day, watching my thoughts, feelings and projections, until a point (four days later) of feeling okay there, feeling again love and appreciation for my teachers, allowing space for their own needs, difficulties and vulnerabilities.

There was a morning, Wednesday, walking across Grand Street in dread, I felt the heavy armor of my back muscles tensed in a fear I have held as long as memory, a constant bracing for when it might happen next, knowing I could never know I was safe. I teared up in that moment, and felt a small crack of softness and hope ripple through me, massaging my hyper-vigilant muscles with gentleness.

While in some way it’s that familiar victimization, as per my usual, I get that the righteous victim invites more nails. There was a baby step. This time I did not wallow in self-pity and take comfort in its treacly warmth, as I wrote about last fall. This time I saw how my defenses keep my needs from being met and felt the sorrow of my entrenched inability to ask for help. While I don’t imagine this will change quickly, seeing it, feeling it, is a relief. And a beginning.

By Friday, after tears of relief, I laughed. All this took place on someone else’s mat, someone who asked me to break in her new manduka because it was too slippery for her. (My rollovers and daily practice break in mats quickly.) I am somewhat superstitious about mats. I think of my own as a talisman, and the crash happened on the first day I used another. But I forced myself to keep practicing on it, to break it in for her. Now that I’ve been injured, afraid, hurt, angry, teary, grateful and smashed open on that mat, it’s broken in. Little does she know. ; )

today’s practice :: check yourself

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I spent 15 minutes looking for a photog credit, but couldn’t find. :-/

Last time I gave a very brief rundown on Catholic/Tibetan Buddhist comparative religious history, as explained by Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. I learned, again, that you don’t care much for history. And I offended some, which wasn’t my intent. I did not write it from the outside. Anyone deeply involved with yoga or Buddhism is at some risk of romanticizing or appropriating culture ways that may be offensive, myself included. What offends varies. Anglicizing names of Sanskrit asana (or even yoga as practiced in the US) is considered by some to be colonizing yoga, while others find using Sanskrit an appropriation of culture. I don’t proclaim what is right or wrong, or condemn anyone’s practice, but I do suggest we take a look at what we do and why we do it.

It’s offensive to disregard the context of living religions and cultures, take out elements that appeal to us, and use them as abstract symbols onto which we project our own spiritual, psychological, or professional needs.* Ripped out of context, these symbols don’t carry the baggage that our own religion of origin may, but they very well might hold their own equivalent baggage in the context of the religion as fully practiced in, say, India or Tibet.

By taking a look at this, we can learn something about the religion we so respect. And maybe a little something about ourselves, as well.

Next time I turn the critical lens on the academic, who would also do well to check himself.

* “PRISONERS OF SHANGRI-LA.” Kirkus Reviews.6 (1998).

the devil-lama & the wafer-god

During a recent meditation retreat, the senior teacher played this video of the Guru. I was troubled. Didn’t the teacher, holder of a hard science PhD, or anyone else, for that matter, feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? It exoticizes Tibet to an extreme. Is it okay, unquestionable, because the Guru is of Tibetan descent? I went home and asked an anthropologist friend who studies the Tibetan diaspora. She replied, “Of course they do! culture is a commodity in our times.” Well, yes. What isn’t? I’d forgotten. In the yoga world this commodification is usually undertaken by the Other.

She recommended two books, the Comaroffs’ Ethnicity, Inc. and Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. I read the latter almost immediately. It was not as revelatory as I’d hoped, but the two parts I liked, I loved.

The first was in the review of Lamaism, the pejorative term that Europeans used for Tibetan Buddhism until the 20th C, an appellation that implied that it was not Buddhism at all. Further, from at least 1255 to the early 1900s, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) was compared to Roman Catholicism. “The comparison was first drawn by Catholics, who felt constrained to account for the many similarities they observed between this form of heathenism and their own true faith….[then] later by Protestants seeking to demonstrate that the corrupt priestcraft observed in Tibet had its counterpart in Europe” (Lopez 17).

William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk, wrote of Mongolian Buddhism (a descendant of Tibetan) in The Journey Of William Of Rubruck To The Eastern Parts Of The World, 1253-1255, as Narrated by Himself (if you are not familiar with the Catholic tradition you may not appreciate this):

They (the idolators) place their temples east and west ; on the north side they make an alcove projecting out like a choir, or sometimes, if the building is square, it is in the middle of the building. So they shut off on the north side an alcove in place of a choir, and there they put a coffer as long and as broad as a table, and after that coffer to the south, they place the chief idol, and that which I saw at Caracarum was as large as we paint Saint Christopher. And a Nestorian who had come from Cathay told me that in that country there is an idol so big that it can be seen from two days off. And they place other idols around about (the principle one), all most beautifully gilt. And on that coffer, which is like a table, they put lamps and offerings. Contrary to the custom of the Saracens, all the doors of the temples open to the south. They also have big bells like ours : ’tis for this reason, I think, that the eastern Christians do not have any. The Ruthenians, however, have them, and so do the Greeks in Gazaria.

All the priests (of the idolators) shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they place two benches, and they sit in the region of the choir but opposite the choir, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence….Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, “God, thou knowest,” as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this.*

(Rubruck 144-146, guided there by Note 26 at Lopez 219-220).

poslaFive hundred years later, in 1741, Picart asserted that the similarities between Catholicism and Lamaism were due to the Tibetans’ allegiance to Prester John, the mythological Catholic priest-king who presided over Muslims and pagans in Asia (or Africa, or wherever he was needed to justify Catholic righteousness). Some claim that Prester John was the first Dalai Lama, others that the Dalai Lama, in the “fraud and deceit of the devil” took power in a classic form of demonic plagiarism (Lopez 22-27).

In 1844, missionaries Huc and Gabet believed that Tsong Kha pa had been the disciple of a grand Catholic missionary whose premature death caused Tsong Kha pa’s education to be incomplete, resulting in the practices of Lamaism. As Lopez points out, had “the Catholic missionary lived longer, Tsong Kha pa would have received full instruction in the dogmas of the Church and so could have converted Tibet to Christianity” (26).

Incredible.

These assertions by Catholics were not curtailed by the enlightenment, and by the 1700s, Protestants joined in. “How could there not be similarities!” they cried. “The Catholics are idolators as well!” This line of reasoning provides my favorite comparison of the religions. From Thomas Astley’s A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels Consisting of the Most Esteemed Relations which Have Been Hitherto Published in Any Language, Comprehending Everything Remarkable in Its Kind in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as quoted in Lopez (29):

We find, in this religion, every individual article, great and small, in which the Romish system is composed: Such as the Worship of Images, praying to Saints, and for the Dead; Purgatory, Pardons, Indulgences, Confession, Absolution, Penance, Exorcism, the Treasure of the Church, Merits and Works of Supererogation; the Pretense to work Miracles, a Hierarchy, or different Order of Priests, with a Pope at their Head. Monks and begging Friars, Nuns, in short, every thing in Speculation and Practice down to Holy-Water and the Beads. They have not, indeed, a Wafer-God, which they first adore, and then devour, but they have a living Divinity in human form [the Dalai Lama] transubstantiated, or transformed, as they believe, from Time to Time; who dwells among them personally, and is therefore, we think, a much more rational Object of Worship.

(Astley 220)

Protestants further argued that Catholics had no luck converting Lamaists because they had nothing new to offer. Rhys Davids found the similarities, e.g. services in dead languages, choirs, processions, creeds, incenses, spectator-only laity, mystic rights and ceremonies performed by shaven priests in gorgeous robes, ruled by a pope with a triple tiara on head and sceptre of temporal power in hand, “one of the most curious facts in the history of the whole world” (Lopez 33).

These comparisons continued even into the 20th century, when J Strunk, a Nazi, wrote in 1937, On Judah and Rome-Tibet: Their Struggle for World Domination (Lopez 40).

Who knew?

All this strikes me as historically fascinating, maybe partly because I was raised Catholic. Next time I’ll fill you in on my favorite bit, The Eye, and offer more of my take on it. Festooned with bottle caps.

*Chapter Four, “The Spell,” in which Madame Blavatsky makes an appearance, is about scholars’ (and others’) gross misinterpretation of the mantra “Om Mani padme hum” which Lopez concludes is “a vocative invocation of Avalokiteśvara….based on the Tibetan sources and on an analysis of the grammar, it appears that the mantra cannot mean “the jewel in the lotus” and that the endless variations on this misreading are merely fanciful” (133).

 

yoga, meditation, and dissociation

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Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

For a few months now, I’ve been working with trauma survivors. Yeah, that’s where I’ve been. It’s an Experience. I’ve felt unprepared for the work to an extreme I’ve never known before. So I’ve been talking to trauma survivors and therapists, and reading as much as I can. It has brought things together for me in a way I never expected. It highlights questions I’ve had about repression in meditation practice since my first experiences with it.

I’ve long noticed a strong habit of dissociating (usually non-pathological) in both yoga practitioners and meditators, both myself and others. This is generally is the opposite of the practices’ intentions, to be more aware one’s present experience. But numbing out can be soothing, or sometimes just habit, so we do it anyway. It’s become something of a pop-psych topic in yoga blogs of late (mine included), usually defined as spiritual bypassing.

In a physical yoga practice, this can show up as the “love-and-light-just-be-positive” sheen that some like to polish over difficult emotions and issues, and has somehow become associated with yoga. For me, it occurs as more of a physical bypass. A vigorous yoga practice feels fantastic. “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators” (Harvard Men’s Health Watch, 2011). It can result in a high that takes me out of my body if I let it.

Is this a problem? On most levels, no. It feels good. It’s great for health. It’s better than most other addictions. But it’s not bringing awareness to the moment or physical experience, which a physical yoga practice can, and arguably should, do.

In a meditation practice, it can be trickier. Like physical yoga, meditation can lower stress and bring better health. “If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace [What does that even mean? Are you selling me something??]” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014).

But many meditation instructions can inadvertently lead to suppressing emotions. “Touch an emotion and let it go. Detach from the emotion and observe it, then return to the breath.” While these practices can be extremely helpful, they can also be an excuse not to feel difficult, painful emotions. And these emotions can’t be “let go” until they’ve been felt and processed.

If you have a habit of dissociating from your emotions, e.g. emotional numbing, this can be counterproductive. At an extreme, detaching from emotion and observing is exactly what some trauma victims do to survive unbearable experiences. When a person cannot escape (flight) or fight, the body will go into a freeze mode, similar to an animal playing dead. Dissociation in its extreme form: muscles go soft, painkilling endorphins and opioids release, and heartbeat and breath slow to all but a stop. Sometimes the person has an experience of floating out of his body and observing from afar (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1997). To ask this person to detach and observe his emotions is, at best, not helpful. While this physiological response to inescapable terror is not likely to be triggered by meditation, habituating a dissociative response by numbing out difficult emotions exacerbates the problem. This might not be immediately obvious if the practitioner finds it soothing. Yet it inhibits long term recovery. Current models of trauma recovery involve remembering (if dissociative amnesia occurred), experiencing the emotions, and integrating them into conscious awareness and identity (Herman again). Only then can some semblance of “letting go” begin.

So what’s this got to do with the average person? Maybe not so much. While emotional numbing is certainly encouraged in pursuit-of-happiness America, and all meditators fall prey to dissociating (daydreaming is a mild form) now and again, if learned properly, the average practitioner will learn to connect with and experience emotion instead of repress it.

Yet I experience this and see it frequently in others. I don’t know if more trauma survivors are drawn to yoga and meditation in attempt to manage or heal their pain, or if the average person is so accustomed to pushing away hurt and anger that he has totally forgotten how to feel and process it. We’re encouraged to be tough and strong. Socially, we often gloss over our emotions as well as others, because we don’t have the social capacity to handle them. We have so many stories and theories and dances around our pain because the terror of facing it is too high. And for some, it is. Those who lack strong community, long-term, trustworthy intimate relationships, or a stable home life don’t have the support system that makes processing emotional pain possible. If you have trained yourself to detach from your emotions (through meditation or otherwise) you lose the ability to feel even when you want to feel. Unfortunately, you can’t just turn off the painful emotions. The good ones shut down too.

I’ve no empirical evidence to support this, but it seems to me that there are probably more trauma survivors in yoga and meditation communities than the population at large. And that’s a good thing. Because if done properly, these practices can lead us into our experience rather than away from it. But God, it’s hard. The temptation to use meditation to float away and self-sooth is incredible. And it probably has health benefits, if the body calms down as a result. Because many trauma survivors have lost the basic, essential ability to self-sooth, this can be an incredible boon.

So why not? Using meditation or yoga (or anything) to self sooth or numb out can calm you down and keep you okay, and that’s fine. The issue is that it won’t change you. It won’t heal you. It won’t transform you.

I do meditation retreats because it takes me a long time (a few days) to stop dissociating and actually meditate. For the record, I do not find them either peaceful or fun. After a retreat in 2012, I realized that after over a decade of daily practice, and finally being in a pretty good place, my biggest fears were still fully intact. My patterns did not want to budge. So I finally made a commitment to face my pain. It’s not soothing. It’s not easy. And my resistance is often just as massive as my will to face myself. But I try. In a way, yeah, I’ve been trying since my practice started, but only since I made that commitment have my baby steps gotten me somewhere a little bit new. Before that I wanted and expected someone else, something else, to take me out of my pain. “If only this…if only that…” I whined. When I let that go (haha) and owned how I actively, if unconsciously, prohibited this or that from ever becoming a possibility, something started to shift. It’s not exciting or sexy. It’s not saying an affirmation and manifesting a trip to Paris. It’s more like getting to the mat every f***ing day. Like asking for help when I don’t even think I want it, because I need to learn how to trust. And how to ask. Like sitting down and writing an hour a day, even if everything feels inchoate and unsayable. Like sharing parts of myself I’ve hidden for decades because they feel, I feel, too ugly and hateful to share.

Unbelievable. So how do we market this? eh??

We don’t. There’s nothing to market, no one way to break your patterns, if that’s what you want to do. It’s different for everyone, and extremely painful and scary because it requires feeling the unfelt, and for some, integrating unspeakable traumas that often feel better off forgotten.

But yeah, sexy ladies sitting on the beach, or in the middle of Broadway, meditating? Bliss out. Numb out. Self sooth. Buy something. Just ask yourself, why are you doing it? Is it serving you? If it’s not, come back.

 

*I migrated the site to a different web host last week and am waiting for wordpress support to migrate the email subscribers. Hopefully that will happen soon. Thanks ~Anastasia

Happy 2014!

Just off a week-long meditation retreat. I snuck out to teach on my birthday and New Year’s Eve, and practiced yoga before the 9a start time. Priorities.

Having just read Emerson & Hopper’s book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, which recommends pretty much the opposite of the (formless) forms of the retreat (my 7th, so I was willing to play with those forms a little bit), I’m very interested in reading Prisoners of Shangri-La. For different reasons, none of which I’ll go into yet.

Over the holidays, I watched Food, Inc., and a few dozen Rémi Gaillard videos with friends (thanks, Shirl). Tears of laughter! I promise you. One of slight relevance posted above. Go to his channel and watch ten more. I seldom watch or recommend moving image, so grain of salt.

Happy New Year! Much love and success in 2014. ~Anastasia

the thing about gurus: a kumaré review [revisited]

Another repost. Because it’s the time of year we huddle inside and watch flicks. Well, if you’re in the Northern parts anyway. This is one of the five movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Highly recommend. (Originally posted July 1, 2012.)

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!”

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

the daily minimum, at home

Tuesday I shared a basic ten (ok, fifteen) minute class to practice at home. Today we have a slightly more vigorous ashtanga-based option. We’ll call it “the daily minimum +.”

If you are just beginning to practice at home, make sure to the same things you’d do in a class. Turn off your phone. Take a minute to ground into your body, using some pranayama or mantra. Commit to spending the next 10 minutes (or hour, or two) on your yoga. If you don’t think you have the discipline to do this, you can pay me a handsome fee to come teach you some.

This sequence takes about 25 minutes, unless you want to dally. If you have less time, simply do the sun salutations, shoulder- and/or headstand, and savanasana.

Some good suggestions for abbreviated ashtanga practices can be found at the top of this FAQ. I especially appreciate these lines at the end, “While it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the body and mind, it is also important to look critically at these needs. Frequently, these needs are actually subtle avoidance mechanisms. If you are sore, tired, or don’t feel like practicing. Acknowledge those feelings and sensations, drop the expectations about what practice should be like and practice anyway.” Yup.



Savasana the movie (above) is short (1 minute) and pretty funny. Watch!

(Thanks, YogaDawg.)

 

against platitude :: or :: a spiritual examination of “for a Reason”

Please know that this is not meant to insult or belittle anyone’s spiritual beliefs. I am not the gentlest of communicators. Trust that I’m working on that: Delivery is everything. I simply feel the need to point out relying heavily on platitudes as a form of spiritual bypassing might not be serving you well.

When I see the word spiritual, I often recoil. What is meant? It is used as if it has a shared meaning, and perhaps within specific groups it does, but it lacks a real definition. Yeah, I just looked it up, and even wikipedia agrees. In our neoliberal age, spirituality is individual. There’s something oxymoronic about that but never mind, not now.

I didn’t take ‘spiritual’ out of the title because I mean it. (Mean what? I’ll use the as the social scientists’ definition, as per wikip, for the moment.)

In the past few weeks I’ve been around some yoga people. I was taken aback by the repetitiveness of the phrase, “It happened for a reason.” And not just the repetition, but its delivery. The sense of disquiet beneath the words was palpable, as if this explanation was not quite quelling their unease.

Well, good. It shouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t just happen “for a Reason.” Or more likely, the reason is that perhaps you made a bad decision, one you’ve made in similar ways before, and you’re rejecting those gnawing little feelings of discomfort. Maybe you should take a second or two to explore that before hoisting it off onto divine providence. Maybe that woman who just broke your heart did so in a way not dissimilar to the last three, and you need to look at the reasons you choose the way you do. (You don’t choose? Please. Take some responsibility. You choose.) Maybe jaunting off for a little trip to Brazil while your sister was on her death bed was not such a great plan, and the guilt that hit well before she made a turn for the worse is something that needs your attention. It was not the first time you jumped ship. Chalk it up to A Reason, and it won’t be the last. And maybe taking that job with the Man when you’d saved three-times enough to start your own business was for no reason but fear. And over and over again.

It is a problem. Not only because it’s annoying (50x so when you’re dropping it on someone else’s pain), but because it prevents clarity. I’m not going to tell you what yoga is, but for me, the (spiritual) practice is about clarity. Using platitudes to avoid pain is an obstacle, not a gift from above. In the long run, nothing you eat, drink, wear, buy, or otherwise use will save you from that discomfort. It must be faced.

And it’s painful.

The biggest positive changes in my life were inspired by pain. An easy example: Around the time I finished college, I was a bridesmaid. My friend and her wedding party were fashion-model stunning. After the ceremony, a friend of the bride dressed in a gown very similar to ours (I was told she felt she should be a bridesmaid), snarked that I looked like a cow in the bridesmaid dress. A horrified groomsmen quickly tried to gloss over her comment, but it was too late. I was hit. It hurt for the obvious reasons, but also because it triggered something in me that was uncomfortable with how I ate, looked, and felt. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have hit me like that.

Thanks to luck, I didn’t head off on a get-thin-quick or a binge-and-purge regime. I found books like Geneen Roth’s, who said to eat what I wanted and noticed how that felt. It was slow going, but long before I learned to meditate, I meditated on each bite I took. This happened for quite some time, maybe months. I didn’t just notice that when I ate too much I felt horrible, I noticed that when I ate high-carb, low-fat food, which the health science of the day advised, I felt tired and awful. In this shift toward awareness, I also noticed that looking at women’s magazines made me feel equally dreadful and that moving my body (hiking, walking, etc) felt really great, both during and after.

I lost weight. If I was tempted to indulge in a pint of ice cream, I called up and felt the searing pain in that horrible comment, and I didn’t. This was, for a time, the main focus of my life. It was not what I ate, but noticing, at every bite, how the food tasted, and if I was hungry. I came to the point I could have chocolate or ice cream or pizza, and without restraint or wanting more, eat only enough. And though I’ve gained weight once or twice in the 15+ years since, while indulging on long trips or depressed in a bad relationship, the knowledge of how to check back in was always there when I came back to it.

Sorry to burst any “naturally thin ashtangi/yoga teacher” bubbles. :-) Like most people, if I don’t eat well and exercise, I gain weight. (Other than NYC walking and summer swimming, my ashtanga practice is my only exercise. This is not to say people larger than me don’t eat well and exercise.)

It seems shallow, that this change in my eating was a significant life change, but when we look at the money, time, and anxiety women (and increasingly men) feel about food, eating, and our bodies, it is not. If only I could have all the time spent in my teen and college years spent on worrying, counting calories, and reading about nutrition (the science of which changes every few years to fuel profit for new diet fads. Vitamins, too. Who funds that “research”?). It wasn’t just the weight loss and feeling comfortable in my body, it was the awareness I gained of how I felt. It shifted so much.

So the comment. It was for a Reason! Maybe in hindsight it looks that way. But if I’d have used that excuse then to diffuse my pain, it’s unlikely I’d have done anything about it. Anything that nags at you is asking for exploration, not platitude. If you are in too much pain for that, I ask: Do you want a band aid to get you through to the next round of the exact same experience, or do you want to find in yourself the Persephonean effort required to meet your pain and its causes? That’s the only place real change comes from.

While I am writing a lot on pain of late, I should say that the rewards of facing it are so rich and light and robust that it is better than anything I could have imagined. More on that later.

emo yoga :: rage, fear, so sorry, etc

yogaagoa

New Yorker Cover 2003

The last post talked a little bit about emotion from a classical Yoga standpoint. It may have been a little dry and unhelpful, especially if you do yoga to feel good rather than to achieve enlightenment. Most yoga practitioners today aren’t that interested in enlightenment (I’ve noticed that far more meditators practice with that aim than yogis), and that’s understood. In the late 19th and early 20th Cs, yoga was revived and transformed for the lay person, the householder. This opened the door for even more transformation when it arrived in the West, to the point that you hear anything and everything is yoga. Maybe. Maybe not.

Western psychology is very different from Indian, and the Self and emotions are viewed differently. (There are different views of emotion and Self within Indian philosophy and psychology, but they do tend toward a different, less individualistic view than in the West.) We often hear a mishmash of philosophies and psychologies when we walk into a Western-style class, which can be very confusing. Especially if you just went to your local gym for a stretch, you begin to feel hot with anger, and the teacher is telling you to feel the love blossoming from your newly-opened forth chakra. What do you do with that?

As mentioned last time, for the yogi, emotions are something to be transcended. Compare this with the words of Carl Jung, the 20th Century psychoanalyst interested in consciousness and ways of being. His ideas tend to resonate with people interested in yoga:

“Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”

For me, this resonates far more than transcending my emotions altogether, partly because I trained myself early on to repress emotions, to bury them to the point it can still be difficult for me to access how I feel, particularly if my ego deems them threatening. It’s a pretty common defense mechanism for Westerners, who preference image and the rational-cognitive mind above all else. If you haven’t felt your emotions, you can’t transcend them.

redthingMy biggest issue with the love and light spiel is that it encourages repression. This is why spiritual bypassing (“The use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” —Robert Augustus Masters) is such an issue. Take a person who isn’t comfortable with his emotions and tell him that he’s headed toward enlightenment if he transcends them. POOF! You have a person with little-to-no self awareness who sits on a cushion blissing out and avoiding half his life, because he skips that crucial early step of meeting and feeling his emotions.

So if yoga brings “a lot of neurotic thoughts and unmanageable emotions (particularly rage) more to the surface” (previous comment), that’s a good thing. Look at it. Feel it. Notice it. Anger can tell us a lot. Just as much as joy and bliss.

Since the So mUch Yoga and Still Such a Bitch post, I’ve had a number of conversations about rage, all with women. Thinking about it now, I should probably have more. It seems that this getting angry, shutting it down, then some time later exploding in violent rage, usually toward an intimate, over, say, taking out the trash, is almost ubiquitous. It’s common. I had no idea.

The maddening thing about this is that it’s impotent. If you freak out on a minor last straw, you are just a hysterical bitch. Your feelings and arguments are moot. You are out of control. Unfeminine. Too feminine. Bad. Shame on you. Take the shame and self-loathing, press it down and play nice. You were so wrong to throw the lasagne across the room like that. What is wrong with you!?

I am so sorry.

But I’m not.

Maybe you’ve noticed that this relationship with anger doesn’t work now, and didn’t work the last 1, 10, 100 times. But what else is there to do?

lionrageThe pattern does serve us well in one way. It keeps us from really facing our rage, which is far scarier than the anger, self-hate, and occasional melt-down we despise but are used to and comfortable with (if you don’t believe me, watch how much you resist changing your approach).

So then how to face the rage?

I don’t know. What I have started to do is watch myself closely, and instead of judging it, just watch. It starts with irritation. Often it ends there, but sometimes not. I’ve noticed that I become extremely irritated when I feel someone has transgressed my boundaries. When someone is late, when a house guest reads over my shoulder (my god, some space and privacy, please!), when the neighbor blares pop music at 5:50am, even if I am awake. Do I respect other people’s boundaries? Of course I do! When I notice them and feel like it. Sometimes.

So, why do these human slights make me so irate?

Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. I could go back to childhood or family patterns, and that’s probably helpful in some ways, but what’s really interesting is just noticing. I’m getting irritated. I’m getting angry. What does that feel like? Where is it coming from? As soon as I go into story or analyzing, I try to go back to not knowing and just feeling what’s there. Where is it in my body? What does it feel like? Is there sensation? Is it constant? Does it move or change?

One thing I like to do when I get close to the heat is shift my attention to someone I love, a funny moment, a fuzzy, loving feeling that floats me far away from the hot, sticky pull of anger. That feels so nice! But it’s cheating. It takes me away from what I’m afraid to feel, leaving it underneath to do God knows what.

There is something bigger there. Something as yet untouched. I feared it before but it’s beginning to be a little more okay. The fear is still there, though, more conscious than the rage. But the more I play with this, the less wrapped up I feel in it. The more I feel my anger, the less I react to it. Recently a friend apologized for something that would have angered or hurt me before. But I wasn’t angered or hurt. I understood where she was coming from, though it’s a different place than I inhabit. When she apologized, I’d totally forgotten the incident. I was able to say, honestly, clearly, “Oh, no worries, I totally understand,” in that way we hope to say it (like we mean it) when we want to feel that way because we know we should, but don’t. I watched that exchange. It felt really nice.

Of course, that’s still rare. I still get angry and overreact. I still hover over something unacknowledged. I don’t know.

As with the Jung quote above, the Western psychological perspective on emotion is often that if felt and listened to, it will tell you something valuable. Lead you somewhere you need to go. This strikes me as crucial to our time because most people care so much more about their image than about how they feel. We’re afraid of our emotions because if felt and respected, they may lead us down a road that’s not acceptable, cool, or in line with what we thought we wanted, with what our ego wants. If we avoid this with some spiritual bypassing, we’re missing the point, and our lives.

neurotic thoughts. unmanageable emotions. yoga.

dsrage

This image, like those of the last few posts, is by Daryl Seitchik. She is awesome.

Comment from the last post:

I thought the practice would make me calmer, but it has actually brought a lot of my neurotic thoughts and unmanageable emotions (particularly rage) more to the surface. Luckily, it has also helped me learn to recognize these things as temporary illusions whose pain I must endure if I want to feel anything at all. One day I hope to have more control over them. But then, that desire to control may just be symptomatic of my neurotic nature. Better to simply endure.

Ok. There’s a lot to unpack here. My first response, in this post, will be general. The next will be a bit more personal.

There’s a lot of confusion about yoga and emotions, and I think it’s because many (most) American teachers and practitioners seem to endorse the idea that yoga is about love, peace, and light, and that yoga will heal our emotional pain because we often feel great after doing it.

The idea that anger, rage, sadness, etc. are bad, and love, joy, happiness, etc. are good is also prevalent. Yoga is spiritual and spiritual people are not angry. Om Shanti. Got that?

There is nothing wrong with anger and rage.

Anger and rage are feelings. If truly felt, rather than rashly acted on or repressed, they tend to move on just like happiness and joy do. This is rare though, as culturally, we’re not encouraged to feel our emotions but to identify with (if not repress) them.

This matters little from a yogic standpoint. Classical Yoga philosophy is dualistic. It is about getting feelings and rational thoughts, both elements of the material realm (prakṛti) out of the way in order to experience consciousness (puruṣa) and liberation. It is not about feeling joy.

Rage is no more an illusion than pleasant feelings, which are no more an illusion than our “rational” cognitive faculties that tell us boiling water will evaporate. Feelings and cognition are both material and temporary. From a Yogic standpoint, actually feeling one’s feelings rather than repressing or acting on them is a doorway to sensing their temporality. It is not about controlling or enduring pain. Not at all. Though it seems that misconception is the indirect lesson learned from the emphasis on love, light, and lifestyle pushed in most American yoga classes.

A little dry though, eh?

The Babarazzi had a timely and hilarious piece on anger last week. It’s a fantastic example of the idiotic ideas about yoga and anger perpetuated in American yoga culture. Yogalebrity Elena Brower, a teacher and life coach taken seriously (e.g. HuffPo) as a spokesperson for yoga, punishes herself for getting angry by drinking a can of Red Bull.

You are correct. It doesn’t make sense. Just read the article.

The Babarazzi does well: “Anger, like any feeling, is an opportunity to investigate the self and how we’ve consciously or subconsciously constructed this self and taught it to behave. See it, and other rebellious emotions, as doors, entry points, and opportunities. Don’t shun them. They’re ripe for investigation!”

Exactly. Helpful and true. I don’t, though, agree that anger is “just an irrational response to stimuli.” Interesting to label a feeling irrational, eh? It definitely preferences the Western philosophic concept (c/o the Greeks) that feelings are a barrier to clear, concise cognition. This rational-cognitive bias permeates our thought and culture. But classical Yoga philosophy doesn’t preference the rational, cognitive mind. It sees both feelings and cognition as material. The cognitive mind cannot cognize itself. It has to move beyond emotion and cognition. The How is explained in the Yoga Sutras.

I realize I’m being a little picky here, but I find the post-modern emphasis on the rational maddening. Look around you. Humans are not rational beings. Nor should we be, entirely. Our emotions inform us if we let them. Because I’m departing from Yoga in the traditional, classical sense, I’ll save this for next time. Til then.

so much yoga & still such a bitch?

Carol made a thoughtful, helpful comment on the last post (thank you) which inspired this post. It sent me back to college and my process since. I, too, was very walled off in college and through my 20s. I felt anger fairly easily and some grief, but I was mostly numb. Frankly, I was somewhat in shock, and lived in survival mode, never able to make deep commitments to anything. I unconsciously sought intense, frightening experiences (mostly through travel) because these resonated for me. I felt them. They reflected the unconscious material I refuse. I didn’t see myself as anxious or depressed, and looked down a bit on people who were.

I did yoga on and off, and it felt good on many levels. But I was too itinerant to have a consistent practice, and was busy with other things. Just before I turned 30, I settled down a bit, and practiced yoga more. I began meditating as well, and started to experience more of my softness. I liked that, but was unsure of it. Around that time, I wrote this piece on meeting grief after a Hindu meditation teacher suggested that what I had repressed was best unexplored, that it had been repressed for a reason. She told me not to pick at scabs like a monkey, but to get over my grief and move on. Just. Like. That. It was way past time.

That pissed me off.

(Most things do.)

Since then, I’ve been chipping away at the defense mechanisms that block me from my feelings. Not the sentimental, victim-y self pity or the disassociated anger when a cab almost wipes me out on the street, but what’s underneath that. It’s been slow going.

How can I have done daily meditation & yoga for over ten years and still hit this wall?

Because I’ve used yoga in different ways. Ironically, that connection I found in my early 30s led me to a graduate program, which I completed while teaching and working full time. My practice was not about deepening or feeling, but about getting through the day.

After a few years of that, I found myself in a few bad relationships and yoga served the same function. It provided enough to get through the days. I very much knew that if I practiced more deeply, I would walk away from those relationships. And I was afraid to do that. Their dysfunction was at once hated, familiar and comfortable.

I attracted men who refused to look at their issues and their pain, while they simultaneously allowed no space for mine, because, they told me, theirs was just so much worse. I told myself I couldn’t face my pain alone, that I needed support. That’s been a big story of mine. If I could just help him, to be there for him, make him face his pain, he would then be able to see and support me.

My twentysomething self would have disdained such weakness in a woman. Would have torn her to shreds.

But this me, while still avoiding feeling, was more honest than the twentysomething who judged her shadow harshly in others. The deep anxiety and grief over love and abandonment began to surface. My god. I was a needy, weak, emotional person.

I knew what I was doing but the pattern was too intoxicating. The problem was, and is, that I know. But feel? Not so much. Knowing is an excuse to avoid the feelings and the pain. The defense mechanism of our age, distraction aside. But it is a distraction. Knowing.

I always suspected but didn’t quite believe that I attracted people (especially romantic partners) who refused to look at their complexes and pain because I refused to truly feel my own. But it’s so much easier to focus on another’s pain—even to feel it. As I saw just how many ways I avoid myself, I finally got it. I’ll keep attracting this type of person until I face my own rejected feelings.

Finally, a few things shifted.

I had a lucky break or two. Okay partly earned, partly luck. I came to the point that I could not bear the patterns any more.

The turning point, I think, is that I gave up the, “I need support” line. It’s true, we do need support. It’s very difficult to explore yourself while working two jobs to meet your basic needs, to survive. Let’s face it, this endeavor is an act of the privileged.

My defense mechanisms kept me in survival mode. The yoga and the meditation had shown me glimpses of reality without them, and finally I found the inner strength to find the support I need to face myself.

But it’s slow, and feels like peeling back the layers of an onion one shred at a time. Then getting scared and putting them on again. Then taking them off again, hoping they’re a little looser the next time around.

Wednesday something happened and I went into rational protection mode. Thinking thinking how would I survive if I could do this I would do that why did she I think that…for hours and hours on end. I was pretty sure I was fine, I had it figured. Then thoughts. Thoughts. Finally, emotion broke through and I realized I was terrified by what had happened, by what it meant. I was so afraid. I cried and cried. Then I picked up the phone and told the person involved. I was met with empathy, presence, and a sincere apology. He heard and reflected my pain. Though he explained, he didn’t defend himself or his motives. He didn’t twist it or make it about himself. He heard me and he was there. Though it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, I’d never experienced anything like it. I think that maybe most of us don’t.

I spent so much energy and time that day defending myself with endless, pointless thoughts. To protect myself from that? A few moments experiencing my fear and tears?It’s true. I did.

What’s this to do with yoga? Noticing thought patterns and that they mean nothing, that they primarily act as the ego’s defense against threats from the unconscious mind, e.g. unacceptable feelings. My ego isn’t into fear and neediness, so I spent hours and a lot of energy blocking those feelings with my thoughts. Yoga/Meditation can teach you to see this, and help you release the feelings underneath. Yoga is learning to stop the wanton thoughts that protect us from ourselves.

I intended to mention the rage, the steaming, screaming, earth-shattering rage I sense but will not, cannot feel, the emotion you don’t get much honest talk about in emo-yoga tell-alls, the emotion that pushes me around and ruins my day, my days, and, disassociated, makes things hard for those around me. But I’ll leave that for another time. Maybe Daryl, my inspiration, will have some cartoons about that by then.

(Thank you, Daryl, for your beautiful work. Again. And Carol, for your heartfelt comment.)

yoga & the true self?

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Was on a fairly good writing schedule before the retreat. After, everything just feels like chatter. Is this important? What am I doing here? What was I saying?

Retreats most usually take me somewhere I didn’t expect. On this one I read a few books about somatic psychology and feeling. One, Focusing, by Gendlin, is about a method for sensing feelings in the body. It forced me to notice I’m not that willing to look at how I feel. I try to soften into it, but I hit a wall. Okay, I don’t even hit it. I see it, sense it, fear it, and get up and do something else, or switch to an easier book.

This realization was blown open for me after the retreat when I saw someone I’d missed. I was in a nasty mood and not pleasant at all. It took a few minutes of being laughed at before I realized my mood was protecting me from feelings of joy. I’d missed that joker, but refused to admit it to myself. Or feel it.

Lordy. I’d rather be pissy than risk the vulnerability of joy. What is going on? I’m aware of my anger, my sadness, my moods. But these aren’t true. They’re defenses, disassociated from the real feeling, teasing me away from seeing what’s really going on underneath. I’m 200 times more aware of your true emotions (if you give me 3 minutes) than my own.

There’s a wall. I’m afraid to know what’s truly going on behind it. But also not even sure how. I want to know. Desperately. But the part of me that doesn’t is still stronger.

Do we all feel this way? Is this why we are all so addicted to anything, everything, but best of all distraction? We run to our addictions the moment a fragment of truth floats into consciousness and the chocolate, the drink, the yoga or the news feed presses it back down. And, or, we indulge in, maybe advertise, sentimental, disassociated emotions. We are soothed, a little, until next time. I can only speak for myself.

There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix.

You hear this a lot around mediation and yoga circles. But give me a break. Maybe it’s a reaction to the self-help culture, but really, there is something to fix. My defenses are hard, and I can really be an asshole if I want to protect myself. And sometimes when I don’t. I hurt people. I’m also pretty good at shutting down heartfelt joy and desire, as somehow unconsciously I believe I don’t deserve them, or will be punished for them, or can’t have them. And I don’t mean once in awhile. I mean as a way of life.

These seem like things worth shifting.

But, true, this doesn’t happen through positive affirmations or raw chocolate wheatgrass shots or whatever is on the market now. How does it happen? That’s the thing. There’s no prescription for everyone. You really have to figure it out for yourself—with a lot of help from the loving people who arrive when you get cracking. This is a cliche, but it’s true. You’ll still meet a lot of assholes, make no mistake, and the loving ones will be assholes, too, because who isn’t at times? And because they’re going to show you the things you don’t want to see. But these people will help you. At least, that’s my experience.

And the breath.

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

The True Self?

What does that mean, really? This term is thrown around along with “spirit” and “soul” in popular culture but there is no cultural consensus as to what they mean. Psychologists don’t agree. Philosophers don’t agree. Certain systems define them well, but once removed from the system, it’s not at all clear, especially if a yogi is bumping up against a Freudian.

Eastern traditions are psychologically very different than Western. In the West, there’s this search for the “True Self” and the ego is seen as mitigating that. The closer and more related the ego is to the Self, the healthier the person. (This might be a largely Jungian notion. I don’t know. I’m writing from the top of my head. Maybe I just made it up). Eastern traditions generally aim to obliterate the ego and the Self, in hope of returning the Self/soul to an ultimate sacred emptiness. Or oneness, if that sits better for you.

When these systems are constantly conflated, as they are in modern yoga vernacular, it’s confusing. What are we doing here?

It does touch something for most people, this sense of a more authentic life. At least, most people interested in yoga. Maybe because our culture is all about distraction and ego, about defining ourselves by what we consume instead of who we are, and we sense there’s more and yearn for it. Many people get a small, if unconscious, glimmer of this in a yoga session. This is why I think so many people do yoga. And because, like acupuncture, yoga can work on the energy system of the body, settling and healing our body-minds.

This yearning has inspired Western Yoga teachers (and maybe Indian, too, I don’t know) to misappropriate yogic teachings to serve the Self. I picked up a book the other day by a popular yoga writer. I set it down after about 20 minutes because I wasn’t comfortable with the thesis (or the barmy writing): The Yoga Scriptures were meant to guide us to our True Selves. I’m sorry, but that’s just not true. The goal of the Sutras, and other writings, is transcending and releasing the Self, not about finding it. I don’t mind using yoga scriptures toward contemporary means and ends, just be honest about what you’re doing.

Not that the founders of modern yoga were. Both Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya manipulated, even invented, scriptures for their own purposes. The former created “The Science of Yoga” and the latter further popularized the classical Yoga Sutras as a Hatha yoga text. It wasn’t. Krishnamacharya also claimed that his practices were codified in the ancient “Yoga Kurunta.” While there is a ~19th C text called the Kapālakuruṇṭakahaṭhābhyāsapaddhati that may have influenced Krishnamacharya, it is quite different than Krishnmacharya’s yoga and features only static asana.

So?

Feeling. The True Self. Yoga. Meditation. The mind-body. What’s my point? I don’t know. There’s no prescription. While I named yoga as a distraction and addiction, it’s not just. It also helps me into places I’ve habitually closed off from myself. So does meditation. It’s pretty easy to discern how I’m practicing, but it takes a close eye.

Can’t we just have fun?

Yeah. Have fun. Feel good. Definitely. Most of my students, maybe you reading this, do yoga because it feels good. It’s the one part of the day they can relax. That is perfect. Sometimes I envy that relationship to yoga.

It’s about the time you realize there might be something more to it (and trust that there is), definitely if you enter a teacher training (and not because of its depth), you realize it’s not all happytime love and light—though there will plenty around you who will insist otherwise. That’s when the real fun begins.

Yoga doesn’t inherently make you a better or more peaceful person. It can help you be more self-aware. But so can a lot of things.

Thank you, Daryl Seitchik, for letting me use your work. I love it all. I chopped it in half without permission, but I believe you’ll like that. The original:

DSFULL3

yoga vacation: upstate new york

us1A few weeks ago I had some time off and needed to get out of the city. Once or twice a year I do a meditation retreat. Sometimes my own, sometimes a group, sometimes a combination. This year I needed to get some work done, so I looked up quiet places to go upstate in the Catskills. I found a place on airbnb, which I recommend for its know-your-fellow-man/community aspect, though their customer service ranges from okay to beyond dreadful. Luckily you probably won’t need it. Airbnb is kind of like couchsurfing for adults. You generally get a bed. Often you can rent a whole place, but I like to stay with hosts, to meet the locals and get an idea of a place. I found a lovely home in Livingston Manor with a Buddhist woman and her five cats. It was the perfect place to retreat.

US2This is a suggestive, not specific, guide. I trust you’ve the ability to plan something like this on your own, should you like, without the specifics. I spent ~$301 on my one-week holiday, and $74 of it was the wtf-cash-only Shortline bus ticket. Cash only? That is a major operation with a monopoly on all locations North. Now there’s a racket.

I stayed for a bit less than a week, and settled into a rhythm. Up at 5:30a. Coffee. Sit. Read. Around 8a, Cynthia (my host) would make a breakfast of goose, chicken, or duck egg omelets and greens and mushrooms from her garden. After breakfast I’d read some more. I brought three books, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, which I chatted about last time, The Spirituality of the Body, by Alexander Lowen (which Horton had mentioned in her Yoga PhD), and Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride by Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. They all had a different tone, so I could shift gears when I felt the urge.

In the afternoon, some days we went to town, others I meandered outside. I sat again, then practiced yoga at 4pm. Then dinner, more reading, and bed. I spent some time working on my laptop as well, but the internet was really slow and my laptop too old to do much more than type a bit.

US3It takes me awhile to settle into this pace. On the first few days of solo retreats, I tend to be lonely in a way I’m not when I’m doing the same thing at home, as I learned when I did a retreat in the city last year. The company of my home and my routine somehow pads me from the existential angst that settles in when I’m away from home and friends and habits. This is maybe a good thing though, as it’s a chance to look at something that’s probably humming underneath the habitual life. It sure can suck though, that look. The incessant rain and the dropping temperatures didn’t help.

us4But it was cozy next to the wood burning stove with a cat or two to keep me warm. I enjoyed my reading and finished most of it, but for the Woodman, which I like to read before bed to trigger dreams. By the third or forth day I’d settled into the rhythm and was enjoying the peace. And then, the benefits of a retreat aren’t always obvious until even a month after its end. Plenty of sights are just coming up now.

The town was cute and basic, with an outdoors store that offers yoga, zumba and hiking trips, a little organic market, a bank, a diner, and Peck’s Market, an IGA supermarket with the largest pickle selection I’ve ever seen and “donut-shop blend” IGA coffee in a box.

One day Cynthia took me to the Sisters of Bethlehem of the Assumption of the Virgin and of St. Bruno, which turned out to be a real highlight of the trip (photos). The Little Sisters of Bethlehem is an eremitical monastery, i.e. the sisters are hermits. Each nun lives in her own small hermitage, each connected by a cloister that leads to the chapel. It is an intense and gorgeous place. The chapel and land are beautiful.

SofB

The unstaffed gift shop is full of art the sisters create for the love of God. The handmade medallions, icons, statues, rosaries, dishware, and other works of art can be paid for by check through a hole in the wall. As the sisters don’t speak, we were left to wonder around (<–that was a slip but a nice one) on our own. It was magical. Cynthia, who’s lived in Livingston Manor since 2005, only learned of the monastery this year when an airbnb guest wanted to visit. It really is a must see. They also have guest hermitages for about $75/night. Find out more about it here at PHATMASS.com (?). The unexpected visit here made the trip. One of those very human experiences you don’t expect but cherish when it comes.

US7All week I’d known a woman and her daughter would arrive on Friday, toward the end of my stay, as would Cynthia’s son. Thursday, Cynthia told me that the woman was also a yoga teacher from NYC. Maybe I knew her?

I explained that there are thousands of yoga teachers in NYC, that it was unlikely.

Friday morning, Cynthia told me the guest’s name is Lori, “L-O-R-I,” she spelled.

Hmmm. I emailed my teacher.

“Omg! Are you with Cynthia through airbnb?!!! Will you still be there when we get there tonite? That would be SO great!” she replied back.

It was.

 

Some more photos from Livingston Manor for your viewing pleasure:

Cynthia selecting fresh trout at Main Street Market

Cynthia selecting fresh trout at Main Street Market

 

Pickle selection at Peck's Market

Pickle selection at Peck’s Market

 

House in town with lots of good stuff on porch

House in town with lots of good stuff on porch

 

Lori & Ruby, Hanging out on Main Street

Lori & Ruby, Hanging out on Main Street

book review: 21st Century Yoga

ksdhfaLast week, I took a little retreat upstate. It was nice, if rainy. I practiced. I sat. I ate goose eggs. I read a few books. While I had intended to read up on the new yoga history, again, due dates dictated my reading order. I started with a book of essays: 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. The contributors have all written extensively online, and are connected through an online yoga community.

I don’t read all that much about yoga, because I respect it as one place I’m not all up in my head. But as I’m writing about it (which is more stream-of-consciousness than thought, honestly, maybe obviously), reading up seems appropriate. I don’t follow yoga culture, as most of it is vapid and uninteresting. What does yoga culture mean anyway? In a one-mile radius of my home there are a number of wildly distinct yoga cultures. From the top of my head: Sivanada, Integral, Laughing Lotus, the Shala, Jivamukti, Yoga to the People, Bikram, YogaWorks and Iyengar of NYC. I’ve tried them all at least once, other than the Shala, and while they all have something to offer, they didn’t resonate for me as asana practice, and certainly not as community or culture.

This is usually the case with yoga blogs as well. So much drivel must be waded through to find something good that it’s just not worth the time. Though there are a handful I really enjoy, most that are well-written and produced are usually just not something I care about. So I live in my dark little yoga cave of practice and teaching uni students. It’s not that I don’t want to teach elsewhere or be part of a community, I just haven’t happened on any that resonate. (While my shala is friendly, it’s small, and too transient/impersonal to be called a community.)

This book seems to take from an equally eclectic group of teachers and practitioners, albeit with an intellectual bent. That is as good (the writers are careful about woo woo) and bad (I do yoga to escape pedants. Namely myself. And because I like the non-verbal aspects of the woo) as it seems. The pedantry was minimal, though. While a few essays irritated me, most I really enjoyed. Many essays addressed yoga community and several took issue with yoga consumerism, spirituality lite, and the concept and selling of the “perfect” yoga body. I most liked the essays that felt honest and intimate.

The essays are by six men, three women, and one transgender person. My favorites were “Starved for Connection: Healing Anorexia Through Yoga” by Chelsea Roff and “Yoga for War: The Politics of the Divine” by Be Scofeld.

CRPIRoff’s piece is a personal account of her recovery from anorexia. She’s clear that depending on frame of mind, yoga can be used to heal as well as to perpetuate disease. While intense, her story is not inflated or dramatic, and she speaks to the complexities of using yoga to heal, especially a disease involving body image. Her frank discussion of self-hate was powerful and stayed with me:

Many of us have been taught that people with eating disorders simply want to be skinny, that they feel like they have to look like models on magazine covers to be worth anything, or that they just have an unhealthy “need for control.” Those are all symptoms of an eating disorder, not the cause.

I didn’t starve myself because I wanted to be skinny. I starved myself because I didn’t have the inner resources to cope with the chaos around me. I starved myself because I wanted to reclaim control over my body, because my own mother had rejected me, because I believed myself unworthy of nourishment and love. I starved myself because I lost all connection with who I was: my goodness, my worth, the light within we all bow to when we say, “Namaste.” I starved myself because I wanted to die.

I hated my body because I hated myself, not the other way around.

(Horton & Harvey, pp 91-92)

The essay is a must read for anyone interested in yoga with an eating disorder, and helpful for anyone close to someone with anorexia.

Scofield’s essay, about spiritual practice and social and political change, hit at something very important for me, something kind of hovering at the side of my mind unformed. There’s a belief in NYC yoga and meditation circles that these practices will automatically turn people to good. If, say, bankers, politicians and corporate CEOs are exposed to them, they will magically wake up and stop robbing the nation at large and become environmentally, socially conscious citizens. But like Roff points out in her essay, yoga can be used for changing habits, or perpetuating them. Scofield:

As we’ve seen, countless people have been deeply entrenched in larger systems of violence and domination despite believing they were experiencing connection with the divine through meditation, yoga, or some other spiritual practice. Of course, others have used their spiritual practices and beliefs to resist these same power structures. Therefore, if we assume that there is in fact a divine foundation of reality, it’s extremely difficult to see how it wouldn’t be morally and politically neutral. If there were a distinct political or moral direction to the divine, and practices such as yoga or meditation were means of tapping into it, then all practitioners would eventually share the same political ideology. This, however, is obviously not the case.

(Horton & Harvey, p 144)

So what from there, eh? It’s hard to say. The book inspired some interesting questions and challenged certain assumptions. Some writers defined yoga or yogic concepts on their own terms, but wrote as if it were established fact, which I found problematic. On the whole, it was an engaging read, and a welcome addition to the yoga shelf. I liked.

yoga teachers and teaching philosophies

Old Site ~2007

Old Site ~2007

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.  ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

 A Q&A with students back in 2007

(I’ve taken the old site down.)

Q: How long have you done yoga? Taught yoga? What’s philosophy for teaching a class?    —S.L.P.

I took my first yoga class in 1993. Needless to say, I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t even like my first class, an alleged intro class full of pretzel-twisting poses that were way beyond me. I tried & liked other classes, though, and did yoga off and on (more off) until 2002, when I realized it was really quite nice. “Really quite nice” doesn’t merit much time on a busy New Yorker’s schedule. I practiced once every week or two, when time permitted.

During a patch of big stress early in 2003, I realized just how much yoga helped me relax. I began to practice twice a week, and by summer I decided to do a teacher training, not because I wanted to teach (I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t see myself as a yoga teacher at all) but because I wanted to deepen my practice. I trained that fall, and in January, I walked into a job in spite of myself. I’ve been teaching since, and love it more each year. (Short answer: I’ve been teaching a bit over five years.)

My philosophy for teaching a class? I want you to come in, leave your life (good and bad) outside, work hard, meet your body, relax, find your breath, and have fun. How do I encourage this as a teacher? I don’t know. Teaching is extremely intuitive. I practiced daily and have studied with some great teachers. I absorb what I do and don’t like, and try to pass this on to you.

Sometimes I worry that I should do more—go to more teachers’ trainings (I plan to this summer), more retreats, more classes, do more preparation, and so on. But I work full time, I teach about 15 hours a week, and I’m in grad school. Doing more isn’t possible at present. But everything I do brings something to my teaching in a way that living and breathing only hathayoga cannot. I did grad work in South Asian Studies, and now Health and Behavioral Studies/Heath Education. I draw heavily on both in my yoga teaching.

I want people to get into their bodies and be honest with themselves. We neglect and abuse ourselves constantly, and we numb ourselves to life. Yoga can reverse this habit, and it isn’t all relaxation, or love and light, because often we open to the pain we’ve been taught all our lives to avoid. Better to be real and move through the pain (and the joy), than to be rigid and constantly defensive, or bubbly and fake. Or anxious. Or depressed. I’ve found that coming into the body is a remarkable way to do this.

 

Q: A teacher talked about seeing the good in everyone, even the people you don’t like. That’s not easy. You know, sometimes I don’t want to see the good in someone. Sometimes I just want to hate them. —J.F.S.

While there is merit in seeing the good, it isn’t easy. On one level, I agree with you. I don’t personally find the “be good” lectures in yoga particularly helpful (and there are many). Some may, and that’s great. Use it. But be aware that translated to the western psyche, being good when it isn’t sincere often translates to more anger and repression. If we want anger and repression, why not stick with where we are and forgo all the trouble? Again, I find this true for many, but not everyone.

I, personally, would hate them, if that’s what I felt truly felt. And I’d observe myself doing so, and perhaps, watch how that feels in general, and in my body. While working myself up can feel good and righteous for a bit, when I watch the process of feeling hate towards someone, I find that it doesn’t feel that great at all. It feels hot, leathery, and cramped. If I can feel the anger, watch it pass, and feel my pain and the hurt beneath the angst, I may or may not feel compassion toward the other person, but I sometimes find some for my own pain. And bad habits.

When this happens, I notice all the stories I tell myself about this terrible person and his/her behavior aren’t accurate, or even the point. The point of the stories is to protect me from the pain that I’ve learned to push away and point at someone else.

Part of the brilliance of yoga, when done regularly, is that it opens the heart and clears the mind just enough to want to be good, to not want to hurt others (even if they’ve hurt me), and to be brave enough to face the pain that lies beneath my angry, depressed, or anxiously cartwheeling mind. It’s not about faking like or resisting hate. It’s about being strong enough to observe how my mind works, how my body works, and how I trick myself into more and more pain by trying to avoid the truth of the pain I have. No, it’s not easy, and no, I don’t manage it much of the time.

I didn’t arrive at this by wanting to be good, and even less because someone suggested I should be. I just came to the point, about six years ago, that the behaviors I used to feel good didn’t work anymore, and had never worked very well at all, though they did get me through some hard times. I was making the same mistakes, thinking the same thoughts, having the same conversations over and over and over again. I wanted out, and wanted something else. I knew yoga made me feel good, so I did more of it. That led to meditation, and an intimacy with my mind and how it works.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Q: What is the ultimate goal of Western-style yoga from the instructor’s perspective? —A.T.

The ultimate goal? Hmm. “Western-style yoga” is extremely diverse and yoga instructors come in many stripes and colors.

From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior. I ultimately believe that yoga and meditation belong together because they balance one another. Those who only do hatha yoga can unwittingly get locked into physical habits or the exhilaration of the experience. Those who only meditate can unwittingly get stuck in mental habits—or the exhilaration of the experience. But together, they keep a check on the other and balance mind and body.

That said, most of my students don’t meditate. I did yoga about a year before I could sit still long enough to even attempt sitting meditation. For Columbia students, who are already way up in their heads, hatha yoga is very grounding. Sure, meditation would be great for them, but at this point yoga may well be enough.

 

Q: Given that everyone is different from another, how do yoga instructors evaluate their students’ progress?    —A.T.

Most of my students are grad students and with me two years, at the most. They are busy, and most aren’t dedicated to a yoga practice, so even getting to class is an accomplishment. This can make “progress” seem quite slow from where I stand, but they may be getting more benefits than the manic-yogi who shows up each day and rips through the practice out of addiction or habit.

What is progress? I may define progress one way and the student another. My goal of yoga may not agree with a student’s goal, but it doesn’t mean that we are mismatched in the studio.

The idea of a linear progression toward a specific goal doesn’t agree with my perception of yoga as a practice that is at least as cyclical as it is linear. I could evaluate progress along the lines of my last response (“From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior”). The student who does this may hit a huge crisis and feel as if life is falling apart. From this perspective, that may be the best thing in the world and just what s/he most needs. Ergo, fantastic progress!

If a student wants me to evaluate her/him, or we have a long term relationship, I’d need to know the student’s goals, abilities, and dreams (nothing less!) before I could do so, and even then it would be more about helping the student evaluate her/his practice on her/his own terms.

What about on a simply physical level? I’m not sure there is a simply physical level. Yes, I notice how someone’s down dog is coming along, and can give pointers, but I’m not sure that this is an evaluation of progress. Simply showing up to the mat with a sincere effort to focus on the body and breath is, to me, the biggest accomplishment for any student.

stretching the east : on backbends

Nastya-fishSo, backbends. I’m not good at them. But I need them. I like them. They feel good. They used to feel like a jolt of coffee, because I take so little breath into my upper chest in my regular breathing pattern. To stretch the chest is crazy energizing, especially if you tend to hunch forward. Now that I do them daily, all sorts of things come up.

The more you do yoga, the more subtly you feel your body. The more you feel what it has to say. What you have to say. That is the trickiest thing in writing and talking about yoga. It’s a non-verbal endeavor, truly. Putting words to it can be difficult, and for a thinker, can run into territories of faith. It’s really something you can’t understand unless you have done it, and done it in a way that is accessible for you (i.e. the teacher and style resonate). It’s like meditation. I really can’t take anyone’s theories or analyses of yoga or meditation (eg Zizek) seriously if they haven’t sat on their ass for at least a weekend (that is very very generous. I do not mean you know anything after a weekend, but you now have an idea bigger than theory). Until then, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just head talk. Disembodied ideas. Blah, blah, blah.

Right. Backbends. I’ll quote from two books I encountered last time. The first, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. I only read the small backbends sections in these books, so I have no recommendation for or against them.

20130514zoeBackbends are especially tremendous poses…because they encounter a sense of emotional openness and confidence. They gently open the chest, abdominal organs, pelvic region, and the whole front side of the body—the tender vulnerable side. The chest is where the heart chakra is located. Many of us are closed down and defended in that area, either from a lack of love or from past hurts. The pelvic region is where the sex chakra is located and many of us have contracted and pulled back in that area. We attempt to protect ourselves emotionally by closing down, pulling back, contracting our bodies, and thereby forming a protective shield or barrier. Closing down is not healthy, though. It’s part of what makes you feel more separate psychologically, and it constricts and restricts vital energy flow, which will inevitably cause you to feel more depressed than you would otherwise, more fearful, less vital, and less alive. Not to mention the fact that most of us sit in a somewhat cramped or collapsed position much of the day, anyway—either at a desk, while driving or eating, or in front of the TV–which not only impairs the functioning of the lungs and abdominal organs but causes the spinal vertebrae to push backward out of healthy alignment.

Backbends open these closed areas, thereby releasing blocked energy while simultaneously building the strength needed to stay open. Strong back muscles, developed with backbends, make it easy to sit and stand erect all day long, so you are alert and comfortable more of the time. Backbends give you energy because they release tension and blocked energy in your chest and pelvic regions as well as through the ankles, knees, quadriceps, abdominal organs, upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms. They are rejuvenating. They encourage youthfulness by keeping the spine supple.

(Schiffmann, pp. 199-200)

I appreciate his mention of the pelvis here, which is absent from most discussions of backbending, but hugely involved. The more intense backbends, in fact, slam my major areas of stress. The “sex chakra” analysis is unfortunately simplistic. The root chakra is located in the pelvis as well, and there are all sorts of reasons one might hold in the psoas and pelvic region. When I talked to my Rolfer about my thoracic spine and kyphosis, she went straight to work on my right psoas, where I tend to hold, to release by back. “Whoa. Weird,” I thought.

We need to be careful about reducing matters to the “heart” and “sex” chakras. Though, sure, trouble in the second might well lead to imbalance in the fourth, and vice verse. Though linking sex and the heart almost seems far fetched in the postmodern era. [Tears.]

urdD

The other book with some interesting insight was Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow:

As part of their sunrise practice the ancient yogis called their backward bending “stretching the east.” [They did?] Backward bends stretch and strengthen the front portion of the torso, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the legs. They stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, which lay deep under the anterior musculature of the abdomen and pelvis and bind the legs to the spine; the diaphragm and the intercostals, which are the primary musculature of respiration; the anterior muscles, which bind the shoulder girdle to the spine; and the anterior muscles of the legs. In addition, they strengthen the superficial and deep muscles of the back, which contract as we bend backward; strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder girdle; stretch the abdominal organs, relieving the visceral compression; gently compress the kidney/adrenal area, stimulating its function; and stretch the anterior muscles of the neck and throat, including the area of the thyroid and thymus glands.

(Kraftsow, pp. 49-50)

Again, mention of the psoas/pelvis and a nice anatomical view of backbending efforts. It’s weakened by the first line, though, as there’s zero evidence that ancient yogis had a sunrise practice or that they backbended. In fact, only a few backbends (e.g. dhanurasana) are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, which, circa 15 C.E., is hardly ancient. Kraftsow studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps that’s where he got his mythology. Regardless, it’s incorrect. Yes, the front body is east and back body west. But it’s quite a stretch to bring the ancient yogis daily regimens into the argument, stated as fact. We really have no idea.

I’m rambling a bit here, largely as a process of investigating something. My chest and spine feel locked into place and I’d like them not to be. Talk about the heart chakra, closing down, vulnerability is interesting but not that helpful. I’ve spent time in my body and mind. I know that. Telling someone to open isn’t an open sesame. And even if you are massaged open, if the same mental and behavioral patterns haven’t shifted, the body will go straight back to where it was.

We can all tell sad stories of difficulties and loss. These stories can be liberating or (more usually) just another trap and excuse. The liberation, I gather, comes from experiencing the true emotion behind the tales, rather than a disassociated dramatown plea for attention that wasn’t received when we needed it. But true emotions can be madly elusive, having been avoided and ignored for so many years.

Thus far, the breath has been the most helpful. Luckily, the chest is somewhere I can actually breath into directly (unlike, say, my hip). Taking time to really breath, gently, into the top of my lungs, when I’m practicing, and sitting, and writing.

To be continued.

on the time i saved someone’s life after a backbending class with genny

or at least his leg

icanduAfter the non-cheesy yoga post, how about a cheesy yoga/meditation story and an intro to the backbends category. Why backbends? Because they’re my weakness, my Achilles’ heel. I don’t hate them. By no means. I feel great after, and sometimes when, I do them. I just don’t do them well.

Yoga asanas are generally broken down into categories: standing poses, backbends, forward bends, twists, and so on. Backbends are poses in which the spine is extended. Spinal extension is the antithesis of the laptop hunch we’ve managed to perfect, which is but one reason they can be so hard.

Somewhat lost in all the online info on backbends (opening! exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!), I walked to the bookstore. I regularly consult Light on Yoga and Yoga: A Gem for Women by the Iyengars, but I wouldn’t mind having a few more solid books on asana. Not just the anatomy and alignment, but the energy around them. It can be hard to judge yoga books online.

Out of the 250+ books on yoga (many were multiple copies), I found only 7 worth browsing. My favorite books on yoga were not even there. Only 3 had something to say about backbends. Though the editing was a little tighter, they didn’t really offer anything I hadn’t read online. Exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!

This is totally true, no doubt. Posture and pelvis are two that I don’t see mentioned often, and think of immediately, especially in my own backbending practice.

bb-eg

Painting on limestone, Egypt, c. 1292 – 1186 BCE
Museo Egizio of Turin

It’s not simply lazy posture that makes us curl over ourselves. Kyphosis can be a result of protecting the heart. A turtling attempt at body armor. We all hold and protect ourselves in different ways, and this is one of mine. And it’s pretty deeply held. Unlike my cranky hamstrings, which I feel groaning in stretch, my upper back is so locked into place that I don’t feel it stretch or move.

I now practice backbends daily, but years back it was more sporadic. When I studied with Genny, one week a month was (and still is, I imagine), dedicated to backbending. These were my favorites. After these classes I felt like a sprite. Awake. Happy.

Just wait, it gets happier still. I’m speaking about energetic experiences in the body, and the felt experience that comes with them. While some of this sort of thing has been studied scientifically, it’s generally frowned on by academic communities. As Christopher Lasch said back in the 70s, “Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of minutiae” (not that he would have approved of this endeavor. But never mind). There are many reasons for this. One being that there isn’t much economic gain in people feeling good, unless a drug is involved. In pomo America, our God Science is as economically motivated as any other. Another reason: the Descartian insistence on rationalism and the mind-body split. What is missed here is that other, non-verbal experiences and ways of knowing do not preclude rationality. They enhance it.

So, after my backbending class at Genny’s, I waited for the train at the West 4th Street station in the Village. It was a bit past rush hour, busy but not crowded. While I waited for an express, a local train came in. Then shrieks of terror. I turned to see a man of about 55 had fallen while getting onto the train. There was a wide gap between the platform and train, and one leg was stuck in it. His other leg was up on the platform, and upper body as well. He made a horrible barking type sound, obviously in total shock.

I looked around. Everyone just stood staring. Without thinking, I went over to the man and put my body against the door so it couldn’t close and the train wouldn’t move. I put my arms around the man but he was too heavy for me to pull up, and his awkward split rendered him totally immobile. His pants were stuck in the wheels. It was horrifying. I held his torso against me and said over and over, breathe, just breathe, it will be okay. The train won’t move. We’ll get you out.

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That set people into motion. Someone in the car asked me if he should pull the emergency break (“Yes!”) and then two men came over and lifted the man out. He disappeared into the train, refusing further help. I realized then that everyone on the platform had crowded around, staring. A conductor finally came by, cursing the fool who pulled the emergency brake, unaware of the entire episode.

I walked back to the other side of the platform, shaken, in disbelief. That man’s leg was caught up in the wheels of the train. It could have been grisly. I knew, was 100% sure, that the only reason I had the presence to help him was my state after Genny’s backbending class. Maybe I’d have helped another time, but maybe not. I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but that my thoughts would have interfered.

Whenever I read about people who jump onto the tracks to save a stranger’s life, they always say, “I didn’t think about it. I just did it.” They don’t think of themselves as heroes, and after sometimes ask why themselves why they took such a risk to save a stranger. They do it because we all have a human instinct to help each other. Our culture of commodification and greed does everything in its power to teach us otherwise, but amazingly enough, it’s still there. When nurtured, it grows.

non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

bod050Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it—the memory, the energy, the feeling—whatever it is. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. I remember saying long before yoga (my late teens, probably), that if something has been repressed to the unconscious, there’s probably a good reason for it. Let it be. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

the yoga diet

yellerMany yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.

We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):

  1. Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
  2. Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
  3. Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  4. Eat as simply and locally as possible.

That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.

While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)

This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.

Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.

Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.

book review: Yoga PhD by Carol Horton

BookCover6x9_BW_220_R2Other than some yoga history and philosophy years back, I don’t usually read much about yoga. I try to keep it as experiential as possible. But the more I write, the more I have begun to look to what others are saying.

In trying to explain hatha yoga a few weeks ago, I found myself needing to explain yoga history. It’s been over five years since I’ve thought much about it, so I went back to the library stacks. I was surprised to find a number of new books, as the subject previously limited to somewhat arcane academic studies (e.g. Alter and White). First on my pile, dictated by its early due date, was Yoga Ph.D. by Jnana Yogi Carol Horton. Though not straight-up history, it was a perfect start to my research. Horton is an academic, yoga practitioner, teacher, and thinker, and I related deeply to her coming to terms with the non-verbal ways of knowing that yoga can inspire, as well as the wooey-ness of the yoga community at large. I also appreciated her totally different approach to our somewhat similar experiences.

Critical thinkers often feel at odds with American yogis because, as Horton explains, critical thinking is often frowned upon in yoga communities, as well as our culture. But we can also feel at odds with other critical thinkers who look down on yoga as some new age escapism—even more so if we teach. It seemed to me that she wrote the book as much for her academically-minded peers as the yoga community. Though ultimately, she wrote it to process something in and for herself.

Yoga was opening new realities to me, taking me places that the purely rational part of my brain, which I had cultivated so assiduously for so many years, couldn’t go on its own. Reading emotions in the body, visualizing archetypes of the subconscious, tracing threads of connection to primordial mysteries both dark and bright – I was discovering new, extra-rational terrain that felt nourishing, exciting, different. But I was too rooted in and fond of the logical to embrace the mushy New Age notions that dominate American discourse on the more esoteric dimensions of yoga today. At the same time, I was too hyper-conscious of (and intrigued by) the peculiarities of post-modern yoga to embrace the quasi-traditional Indian spirituality that many serious practitioners pursue. I wanted to understand yoga in a way that was true to my own experience….that meant integrating two seemingly disparate parts of myself [the Professor and the Yogini.]”

(Yoga Ph.D., p. 2)

carol horton

Carol Horton, PhD

This is a scary space, at first, for a critical thinker. It took me quite some time to respect the quiet knowing that often contradicts what my dominant, rational, control-freak ego brain dictates. I think this is true for many over-thinkers, though it’s oft-noted that great minds from Einstein to Plath are all driven as much by intuition as by reason.

From early on in my yoga practice, I was concerned with bringing together the tension of the opposites. This is a popular theme in both American yoga as well as Jungian psychology, and I became interested in both at the same time. Uniting Shiva and Shakti, ida and pingala, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, conscious and unconscious, doing and being, yang and yin are similar themes. Sometimes it seems like an impossible balance in the pomo era, when rationality, masculinity, and control are idealized, and intuition, femininity, and submission are relegated to the ditzy, tacky, and weak. Is the cliche of a pink princess or a group of upper middle class white women chanting homage to Lakshmi really the best we can do? It’s not.

Horton writes the book in an attempt to integrate these opposites. “I was worried that if I started analyzing my yoga experiences, they’d lose their power (p.3).” I get that, though I was worried that if I analyzed my yoga experiences, I’d bully them out of existence. And I see that in my academic students as well. A plea to not make me think about this. “Please just let me have one space where I am free from the critical thinker!”

So It’s impressive that Horton is able to integrate these dualities for the book. Her goal is to “make sense of the strange multi-dimensionality of contemporary yoga” by examining the dualities: commercial vs spiritual, ancient vs modern, traditional vs revolutionary. She does so in celebration of modern yoga, instead of decrying the changes of post-modernity. It’s refreshing.

The book includes short but substantial explanations of yoga history, psychology, spirituality, sociology woven together with a thesis on a post-modern “democratizing” force in yoga and a (stronger) personal narrative. There were so many interesting threads throughout the book that I hope to take some of them up in future posts. In the meantime, highly recommended!

 

meeting resistance on and off the mat

bertrand-nastya-_117The last post and some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.

The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.

But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.

As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.

Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.

There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?

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When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?

I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.

Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.

This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.

yoga practice in class and out

oldsite

This post is part of an integration of the info on the first yoga site I made for students back in 2007, as I’ll be taking it down soon. Enjoy!

Q: Is there a minimum amount of time that you should practice? Is it worth practicing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have?    –M.M.

M.M.— This is a difficult question. The standby, “it depends on you, your needs, goals, and schedule” is true, but also frustrating, especially if you are new to yoga and just want some steadfast answers.

Ten minutes is enough to make a difference, believe it or not. If I have to squeeze in a bare minimum, I do a:
2-minute Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)
2-minute Sirsasana (headstand, or substitute L-pose, dolphin, handstand or your favorite)
2-minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
2-minute Savasana (relaxation pose)

Though it’s tempting, don’t skip the Savasana. It is the most important pose.

If you have only 5 minutes, or even 2, take the time to do a forward bend or down dog, and gently bring yourself back to the breath each time you stray. These few moments can shift your awareness, and it may open up time for more. This is especially true when you feel like you don’t have time!

Q: Would it be better to practice twice a week for an hour instead of doing once a week for an hour and a half?    –M.M.

Yes. An hour-and-a-half class is great, but if you don’t practice more at home, one hour, twice a week is better.

Q: How do I find the discipline and inspiration to make my home practice an every day occurrence?    –B.J.

One teacher told me that if you want to change your habitual patterns, and therein your life, simply dedicate 5 minutes a day to something you love and believe in. This can be yoga, meditation, drawing, singing—whatever it is that lights you up. Give yourself to it fully for those 5 minutes and do it everyday (not 5m. today, 0m. tomorrow, and 15m. the next), no matter what comes up. We humans are so fond of our fixed ways that we will create resistance to even this small act of awareness. Somehow, we can watch that and move past it, and those 5 minutes blossom into something much larger.

Q: I’ve begun to wonder a little bit (and this is strictly based upon my own idiosyncrasies) what a yoga class would be like conducted in silence. Is it possible to do? Is it done? I think that listening is a very good practice but I worry about how much privilege we give to the voice. What does yogic philosophy say about this?    –R.W.J.C.

Mysore-style Ashtanga is more or less conducted in silence, but for the Ujjayi breathing that fills the room. The teacher does walk around and make individual corrections (using voice and touch), but it’s directed to one person rather than the entire room.

Yogic philosophy has much to say about sound as well as voice, which can be used for creating sacred sound, or a scattered, unfocused state of mind, and everything in between. Read the Upanisads if you are interested. The Olivelle translation is direct and free from extensive figurative translation.


C: Yes, I have a personal practice. I sort of weave yoga into my day every day…I can’t seem to help it.    –R.W.J.C.

Excellent, R. That made me grin. Let’s hope we all get there—I must admit there are days I’d rather just stay in bed and read.

to close, a short video of John Cleese on the benefits of laughing yoga.

why do yoga?

ardha_pinkWhen I was working on my masters, I made a website about yoga (2007). I surveyed my students for questions and information, and answered them on the site. This post (and some to follow) is an integration of that material, as I’ll take the old site down soon.

Why do people take yoga?

The reasons people take yoga are numerous. The most straightforward and well documented are physical, such as flexibility, balance, muscular strength, and endurance. Other benefits include relaxation, reduced stress, depression, and anxiety, improved breathing, and a deeper, more comfortable relationship with yourself.

I started yoga because I like to move, and continued because it relaxes me like little else. It improved my patience and ability to sit for long periods, which I later learned was an inspiration for its development. It also impacts the way I see the world and my relationship with myself in a way nothing else can—if I let it.

What are the benefits of yoga? Students respond.

One student said, “I take yoga because of the smile it puts on my face for the rest of the day.” Another, “I sleep better, feel less stressed out, and have a better week. Moving makes me feel alive and in the moment.” And another, “ In yoga, my mind really stops and I’m able to feel silence. It’s hard otherwise to get myself to stop thinking….I want to forget who I think I am and remember who I really am. After every class, I am inspired to treat myself better than I do—to eat better, get more sleep, forget about stress. Not that I do it, but I have great Tuesdays nonetheless.”

If you’ve anything to add, by all means. :)

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahman (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

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Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

stretching, science, & the wisdom of ‘boring’ yoga asana sequencing

Kg_2004-08-18_Oomoot_070In the last few years, it’s come to light that static stretching isn’t a great thing before activities requiring muscle power. Most recently the New York Times reported researchers have discovered stretching is bad. The article mentions only once that static stretching, as opposed to dynamic stretching, is problematic. The rest of the article states time and again that stretching is bad. A skimmer might well come away with the idea she should avoid all stretching at all times. But static stretching is only problematic before you weight lift or row or do some other arduous activity. What’s with the dodgy reporting, NYT?

Static stretching involves holding the muscles in a stretch for a long time. Dynamic stretching stretches the muscles while moving, e.g. butt kicks, leg lifts, walking lunges, and these dynamic toe touches at right. Or, Surya Namaskara, sun salutations.

When I first read this a few years ago (my masters is in health, so I try to keep up), I couldn’t help but observe this is exactly what we do in ashtanga, and exactly how I sequence my vinyasa classes. Kind of like the research that revealed exercise before breakfast is better for weight loss. Yogis knew that. While I’m all for well-conducted and well-reported research (difficult and thus rare when involving human behavior), I strongly reject the notion that empirical evidence is the only valuable knowledge. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn (PhD in MCB from MIT) said, “Oh my god. There is an entirely different way of knowing. Why didn’t they tell us this in kindergarten? An entirely different way of knowing.” In other words, something doesn’t have to be “science” to be valuable. But I’ll rant about that and the “Science of Yoga/Yoga Science” meme another day.

Occasionally I hear students complain about boring sequencing. I try to avoid condescending comments like, “If you are bored in your yoga practice, you are missing the point. You will never know anything about your mind until it has been bored.” If you aren’t doing yoga to learn about your mind, that’s fine. Either deal with the boredom anyway or find another teacher who likes to “change things up.”

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Dynamic Stretching!

I do Ashtanga Yoga. This practice involves doing the same set of postures in the same order six days a week for years until they are mastered to the extent that one can move on. That you, my student, have to do pranayama followed by 5 Surya Namaskara As and Bs once or twice a week really gets no sympathy in these quarters.

After sun salutations come standing postures (sometimes within freestyle sun salutations), then back bends, then seated forward bends, sometimes seated twists, then closing inversions, then supine spinal twists, followed by pranayama and savasana. That is my recipe. It is neither secret nor trademarked. It is a combination of ashtanga sequencing and basic Integral Yoga sequencing, as my students are not ashtangis (most don’t practice more than a few times a week), and I am not an ashtanga teacher.

Occasionally I teach more than one pose in succession on each side, but if I do, they are usually all standing asana. None of this standing, bending, sitting, reclining on one side of the body, then back up to stand for the other side. It’s just not right. Why?

Well, for one thing, as the NYT tells us, static stretching before using the muscles strenuously is not a good idea. It weakens them in the short term. For example: lying on the floor for ten minutes in hip openers and quad stretches then hoisting back up for a standing sequence culminating in Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise). It’s hell on the hips and quads. You might not notice this at age 22, or if you lean toward strength over flexibility, but the rest of us do.

More traditional sequencing understands this (by traditional, I mean it’s been around more than fifty years. Not 5,000. Fifty). How do we begin class? At least ten Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations). What are Sun Salutations? Dynamic stretching. Followed by standing poses and back bends (usually on the abdomen), which are the most strenuous and strengthening for the muscles, and as the research of the last few years indicates, should not be done after static stretching. Finally, seated forward bends, and other supine (lying around) asana, which we hold for a minute or two. These are static stretches, and we do them last.

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Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body, 1937

At a party recently, I overheard one yoga instructor telling another, “Yeah, she has really creative sequencing.” They teach in another tradition, which apparently values funky choreography and changing things up. This tradition is in the hatha-vinyasa family, so it can be very confusing to the dabbling practitioner. You can really never be sure what you’re going to get in such classes, as my classes, too, are hatha-vinyasa. This is why it’s a good idea to find one tradition and one or two teachers and stay there. While funky sequencing can certainly be fun, I’ve found that at best, it isn’t much different than a work out and at worst, my muscles are ruined for days or I feel jacked up from lack of calming asana toward the finish.

More important than stretching trends are the energetic properties of the asanas. Wha? I usually spare you such discourse, but not today. Moving around has a certain effect on the body-mind. As do standing asanas, backbends, forward bends, and so on. Good sequencing is organized with this in mind. A gross simplification: Standing poses ground, energize, and focus the body-mind. Back bends stimulate and energize. Forward bends calm and soothe. Inversions, once mastered, are both stimulating and soothing. Hopefully you get the idea. It’s an important one.

A related aside: If you wonder if you should workout before or after yoga, the answer is before. Apply lessons learned above.

yoga history & hatha yoga : 101x

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Last week when I wrote the “Wait. What is Hatha Yoga?” piece, things got out of hand. My intention was to explain simply that Hatha yoga is all physical yoga, not a style of it. But that exploded. Hatha yoga has a long and complicated history, which has thankfully gotten much more attention in the last few years. I realized I should explain that Hatha Yoga evolved not in line with the tradition of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but in a break from it, about a thousand years later. I also grew curious about how Yoga now seemed to claim Vedanta and Advaita Vedanta as its own, though it was originally an unrelated āstika (school of philosophy).

Because I haven’t studied all of this in years, I’m dusty. I was overwhelmed because there is just so much information. It’s interpreted and categorized in many different ways and the contradictions can be difficult to piece together. There are literally two aisles of books on yoga, tantra, and astika at Columbia’s main library, the cavernous stacks where Ghostbusters was filmed. When I explained this overwhelm to one of my favorite people, the response? “You mean yoga isn’t just an activity?” Sigh.

It is also, sadly, something that doesn’t seem to interest you much. No, no. No guilt. Just an observation.

History is interesting and important to me. As your resident yoga expert, I think you should at least know that yoga is more than a physical practice. The physical practice (which includes kriya and pranayama as well as asana) is called Hatha Yoga. If that’s enough for you, you can move along now.

Though I’m not burning to invest too much time in this, I decided to go back to David Gordon White in attempt to sort it out. Because it wasn’t offsite and available for delivery at the nearest circulation desk, I had to go into the Ghostbuster stacks on my break. This is a wonderful but dangerous thing, as I have no small addiction to libraries. I went in for two books and left with nine.

And gorgeous, glorious books they are. One has old illustrations of the Hatha Yoga Pradapika. Another is a somewhat hilarious book by B.S. Goel on psychoanalysis and meditation from a very Indian perspective. One book, new (2012), American, by a somewhat familiar name, I almost didn’t take. In what felt like a fit of indulgence, I added it to my stack.

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The next morning on the train I began reading it: Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga by Richard Rosen. The research distilled! My work done! (Well, okay, not quite.) Why hadn’t I heard of this book? Nevermind. I walked from train to café and read before class.

“Of course, Hatha Yoga isn’t the original yoga, the yoga school that preceded all others. That distinction formally belongs to the system outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, compiled sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. But traditional Hatha Yoga does precede and is the “original” version of what we’ll call modern Hatha Yoga, which began taking shape in the earl decades of the twentieth century.”

This is all on page one. Rosen explains some of what I began writing last week, that Yoga Āstika was codified by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, probably around 2nd century BCE (only a few scholars argue for a date as late as 200 C.E.). This is easily the oldest and most cited text on yoga. It is a text on Rāja Yoga and is largely about cultivation of the mind. The Sutras mentions physical posture (asana) all of three times, and only twice directly. The first, in Sutra 2-29, asana is mentioned as the third of the eight limbs of yoga, after yama and niyama. Much later, the Hatha Yogis would change this by bumping it up to number one. The second is Sutra 2-46, “Asana is a steady comfortable posture” (Satchidananda translation, p152). And indirectly in the third, “By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite [asana is mastered].” (Satchidananda translation, p152). All three occur in the portion on practice, chapter 2. Here Hatha Yoga is a path to Rāja yoga. Notice that all three refer to asana in its literal meaning: seat. For Patanjali, yoga asana meant sitting comfortably for meditation. It did not mean standing or supine postures. Asana means “seat” in Sanskrit.

The development of Hatha Yoga came about a thousand years later. The modern appropriation of the term hatha to describe a style of physical yoga strays from the traditional usage of the term. This likely came from the Sivananda-lineage schools, because unlike most others in the West, they practice (their interpretation of) Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga in addition to Hatha Yoga. When the ashrams and schools (e.g. Sivananda and Integral) practiced their fairly basic and relaxing physical Hatha Yoga, as opposed to their Karma or Bhakti Yoga, hatha yoga came to be understood as a style of Hatha Yoga as compared to styles like Iyengar or Ashtanga-Vinyasa. Not surprisingly, the other non-Hatha Yogas did not take off.

In India, the term yoga is most closely associated with the word dhyana, or meditation (or was until very recently). Unlike the general western concept of meditation, dhyana is not specifically body-oriented. It doesn’t necessarily mean seated meditation, nor does it necessarily exclude the body or Hatha Yoga.

When reading about types of western yoga, keep in mind that any physical yoga is Hatha Yoga, but it is sometimes used to describe a style of Hatha Yoga.

Next time, we’ll talk more about The Yoga Sutras and the development of Hatha Yoga.

adho mukha svanasana from a master

misskitty
Downward Facing Dog. Post nap.

how to work toward padmasana: lotus pose

NewYork_02-12-11_YogaAnastasia_094So you want to do padmasana. Because like headstand, lotus pose is an asana that comes to mind when people think of yoga. And for good reason. It’s one of the fifteen poses mentioned in the 15th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which makes it one of the few asanas with a history. There is no shortage of stock photos of blissed out ladies sitting in lotus whilst meditating on the beach. And you want that. I must warn that while I’m something of a beachcomber, I have never once come across such a lady in a natural habitat. Or gentleman. Perhaps with a little work we can change that.

But my knees!

While padmasana can injure the knees and ankles, the knees aren’t the problem, unless you’ve already forced yourself into the position and hurt them. It’s the hips. Lotus requires a dramatic external rotation of the hip joints, and this is easier for some bodies than others. Some hip joints are happier in external rotation, and others internal rotation (e.g. virasana). It’s rare that a body is equally happy in both.

My hips seem externally rotated at the joint themselves, to the point that my internal rotation is laughable. I have to accept that atri-mu-pand work with it. Triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana is easily my worst pose in primary series, and it’s easy for me to forget that while it’s still bad, it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t bind without falling on my side. I had to ground my elbows on the floor by my extended leg to keep upright. With practice, I eventually learned to stay upright and bind. I say this because there are limitations and there are gifts. External hip rotation is easy for me. I have no memory of ever not being able to do lotus easily. If that is not the case for you, go slowly and be patient with yourself, as I must in internal hip rotations. If you practice daily, you don’t even notice the progress. But it eventually happens.

How to Get the Hip Flexibility Needed for Padmasana

Most of the Padmasana how to’s out there (e.g. image below left) are helpful only if you need some help going into the pose, but can pretty much do it. If you can’t do it, they are only frustrating. What you need help with is opening the hips. Folding your legs properly just isn’t the issue. Yet.

a_28Joints aside, the biggest culprit in difficult external hip rotation are tight piriformis muscles. This happens when you sit at a desk all day. Your gluts get lazy and your hip flexors fierce (also why you hate Utthan Pristhasana, aka lizard, but we’ll talk about that another day). This training article has an excellent overview and includes some exercises for external hip rotation.

The very best way to get yourself into padmasana shape? It’s the answer I give to 97% of questions. Practice frequently. Like headstand, you don’t have to do specific poses day after day to prepare yourself for lotus. A well-rounded class will open your hips. I include poses like Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle), Trikonasana (Triangle), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Ardha Matsyandrasana (Seated Twist), and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) in every class so that your hips are regularly coaxed into flexibility.

Equally important, if padmasana is a goal: Sit in ardha padmasana (half lotus) at your desk as often as you can. This will not only support your spine better than sitting with your feet on the floor, it will prepare you for full lotus. I’m writing this from a friend’s place, sitting in a fancy chair. But I’m much more comfortable at home, where I sit at my desk cross-legged on a flat, wooden kitchen chair with a pillow for lumbar support. This ergo-dynamic contraption I’m on now is all contoured out of proportion to a lotus seat, and the arms get in the way of my feet. I’m pretty much just squashed in, as I find it impossible to sit upright with my feet on the floor. I slouch. So get your feet up and cross your legs. When that’s tolerable for an hour or so at a time, move into half lotus (with one foot up on the hip instead of two) for as long as possible. Sitting like this daily will bring you to full padmasana much faster than just practicing in class.

Benefits of Padmasana
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couldn’t find image credit on this one

Once you’re comfortable (and that could take years), lotus is incredibly supportive of the spine and your posture, because the pelvis sits very upright. It stretches the hips, knees and ankles. It’s also said to calm the brain and nervous system, stimulate abdominal organs, soothe menstrual cramps and sciatica, and if done during pregnancy, ease childbirth. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it also destroys all disease and awakens kundalini. And like the gentleman in the photo, you will become hairless. Maybe.

Personal Note

When I started doing lotus daily, my shins felt as if they were grinding into one another. It was painful. Why I cannot explain, but with daily practice, it just went away. Because I practice ashtanga, I always draw the right leg up first. If I draw up the left side first, I have the grinding pain. I imagine I’d have to do left side first every day to even this out. Perhaps it’s some remaining tightness in the hips that causes the sharp bones to press to firmly together, which eventually eases. Regardless, know that it will go away with regular practice.

how often should I practice yoga?

Why not everyday? Because yoga is not my life, you say? Oh. Okay then. The answer varies.

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Yoga? But I’m Not Flexible (Beginners)

When I first practiced yoga, it was very sporadic. Probably not even once a week. Are there any benefits to practicing once in awhile? Yes. Most people feel good during or after yoga, if not both. This goodness can help a person decide to do more yoga. Long term benefits to sporadic practice? Probably not.

Some types of yoga, like ashtanga, require practice at least four days a week, beginners included. But if you are totally new to yoga, your ashtanga practice will only be about 20 minutes long. Practicing sporadically will only frustrate you. In fact, any highly vigorous (or heated) yoga done sporadically is going to leave you sore (or nauseous) and wondering if it’s right for you.

NewYork_2010-12-29_CellSnaps_094If you are still at the dappling stage, I recommend a basics class in a gentler style. You can find this in classes called or studios that offer, for example, Integral Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Viniyoga. There’s less chance of strain or injury, and it will give you the taste and foundation you need to do more. It is an untruth that yoga is for flexible people. It increases strength and flexibility, but that’s not the point.

An aside: when you meet a yoga teacher in a non-yogic situation, please do not announce your inflexibility to him. I mean, think about that for a moment. Really. (Up next, an essay about what not to say to yoga teachers in social settings.)

I Like Yoga, But I’m Really Busy (Advanced Beginners)

Okay, then once a week. But keep with a basic style, or Iyengar. I have students who practice only once a week, and while there is some minor progress in their asana, they are almost starting from square one each week. Twice a week is better. I do see marked improvements in my undergrads, who meet twice as week over a semester. Also, they are spring chickens and their bodies are quick to learn. My older students, even mid-20s, make less progress at that frequency.

Should I Be Doing Headstand Soon? When Can I do Headstand? (Intermediate)

To see real, long term benefits of yoga, I find you need to practice 3 times a week, minimum. It’s difficult to meet your body and notice what is going on if you practice less often. Practice does not have to be a 90-minute class. It can be 15 minutes of practice at home or in an office. A few sequences are posted here. These are meant to supplement classes, not replace your teacher. Yoga is best learned directly from a teacher, not videos, books, blogs, or podcasts. They can help supplement your practice until you’re ready to practice on your own without them (which is about now, at the intermediate level). If you practice three times a week, you will start to notice a difference in your body, your yoga, and hopefully your mind. And get over headstand. It doesn’t matter.

NewYork_2011-05-30_YogaAnastasia_012Yoga Dilettante! (Intermediate-Advanced)

You practice 5-7 days a week. No less. Please understand that advanced yoga is not back flips or contortions. It could be 60 minutes of ardha padmasana. This frequency is open to any level, though beginners should be cautioned against an over-zealousness that leads to burnout. If you practice this often, you will progress. You will also suffer ego trips and spiritual materialism, but that’s part of the practice. Notice and cut it out. No one’s style of yoga is the best style of yoga, and because you’ve dedicated over ten hours a week to your mat doesn’t mean you’re a better yogi than someone who’s never seen a mat. Nor are you superior because you don’t go in for an impressive asana practice but sure like to meditate.

Committing to something like an ashtanga practice is a major time commitment, but with that practice “all is coming,” as K. Patabhi Jois liked to say. The one thing that truly amazes me about ashtanga is what dedication and commitment can bring. This is true of any practice. Have fun.

 

basic pranayama for beginners : प्राणायाम

Dear Students,

iyengar breathPranayama is the key to your practice. The breath is it. I often say “yoga and meditation” because in the West, yoga is considered to be something apart from meditation. It is not. Likewise, pranayama is no less yoga than asana (physical postures). The are all parts of a larger whole.

If you are only interested in yoga for exercise purposes, fine. As a friend says, “Diet yoga is probably better than nothing.” Even so, breath work is good for your body, metabolism, and stress levels. I really can’t recommend it enough.

The first type of yoga I started doing regularly was at Integral in NYC. The sequencing of their level one class is simple, straightforward and brilliant. I was never captivated by their more advanced levels in the same way, so I moved on. But no other style I tried included much pranayama, with the exception of Genny Kapuler (an amazing teacher for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. No one interested in yoga should pass through NYC without trying her class), who often includes it in asana class, as well as teaching a class devoted to pranayama every Monday. I began to notice in funky, free-for-all vinyasa classes that I had fun during and felt good immediately after, but the feeling didn’t stay with me long. It wasn’t much different than working out. Pranayama made the difference. The most pranayama you’ll get in popular yoga classes is some kapalabhati, which is great, but certainly not the most relaxing. And while you may want more fire from the skull shining breath (kapalabhati), I see your shoulders. You really could use some deep breaths.

pranayamaI keep pranayama very simple, partly in hopes that the practices will become second nature to you and you’ll do them on your own. If you want an hour and a half of pranayama, go to Genny’s. There are very deep and complicated practices, some known for destabilizing an unprepared mind. These aren’t on the menu. You should learn pranayama with a teacher, and then practice on your own. The most basic practice I teach is an antar kumbhaka, or breath retention on inhalation.

Antar Kumbhaka for Beginners

  • Sit or lie comfortably with an open chest. Once you’re accustomed to this breath, you can do it standing or even upside down.
  • Feel your breath. Notice where it is, how it feels, and how you feel. Then return your attention back to the breath.
  • Put your tongue at the back of your upper teeth, where it hits the gum. Keep it there for the entire practice.
  • Inhale through your nose to the top of your chest for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 7 counts. Exhale through your mouth, around your tongue, for 8 counts.
  • Repeat up to 4 times. Once accustomed to it, you can repeat up to 8 times. Do this practice as much as you like. If you do it twice a day, you will transform. (Haha. Just kidding. You will feel better though.)

This breath is very soothing. I sometimes do it once at the beginning of savasana, to settle in. It can also be done when you feel on edge, before you go to sleep, before you eat, before an interview, and so on. It’s more effective in these situations if you practice it frequently, but it’s always worth a try.

 

new topic: cheesy yoga/meditation stories

Who wants more stories about how yoga opened a heart to the love and abundance of the universe? Or, say, how yoga teacher training “transformed” a life and taught a budding yogi to unconditionally love everyone present. “Even the most difficult people!”

That, gentle readers, is not transformation or yoga. That is repression. But I won’t spin off into a diatribe about using “good” things (yoga, meditation, exercise, work, romance, etc) to keep us tolerably comfortable in our unfortunate patterns, in lieu of doing the hard, painful, sometimes dark work of facing them. Though I could. I’m an expert.

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Carlos

I will share a story, now and again, about times when yoga (including meditation) practice shifted something for me so that I experienced life outside my habitual patterns, and maybe even altered them a little bit. (Maybe. Sometimes. Not always.) While this shift is small, beginning to notice my reactions is the beginning of something. When, as in this story, my less stressed reaction comes naturally, instead of from, “I should not be freaking out about this. Stop freaking out about this. Breathe! Stop freaking out!” It feels significant. Hopeful, even.

Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together. ~Pema Chödrön

The other day, about a half an hour before it was time to go teach, I felt slightly annoyed sitting at my computer, looking at facebook or checking a blog while I not-totally-consciously decided how to use the remaining 30 minutes before I left. Bored by the computer, I got up and did viparita karani (legs up the wall). While there, I did some pranayama before bringing my awareness to breath, over and over again. Twenty minutes later, I got up and readied to leave. I took some tea with me, because somehow I had time to make it. When I got to the subway, I went to the back of the platform. A 1 train was waiting there and the conductor called to me, “Hey, you didn’t bring me any!” (tea). I went over and chatted with him. The trains are especially screwy at that time of day, and I told him that I may well see him again up at 96th Street.

“Well, you may catch my leader,” he said.

A leader is the train in front of you. I know this from years of chat with M4 bus drivers when I took the last bus home each night to the second to last stop. But I’ve only talked to one or two train conductors.

“Oh, he pulled out of the station just as we pulled in the other day [so we missed the train],” I joked. “They’re holding you here. They always hold the 1 train at this time. You’re running fast (or, in MTA lingo, running hot)?”

“Yeah, it’s because these trains are on schedules, you know, but the schedules aren’t reality. It says it takes us 45 minutes to get down here from 168, but really it’s only 35. So they have to hold us.”

Oh, do I know about the schedules.

After a minute or two more of chitchat, the 2 express came, and I got on it. Just after, Carlos (we introduced ourselves) was freed to leave the station.

But the 2 just sat there. In a few minutes they announced we were being held because of a sick passenger in the train, and that all express trains would be routed around it on the local track. Oh. Man. Every New Yorker knows this feeling. I should have taken that 1. Just then, another 1 train pulled in and they held it. What the?!? If they hold a local train, it means that any express trains routed behind it will be stuck behind the local, and we’ll never catch up with them—either Carlos or the one behind him. There was sudden movement of riders back to the original express. The passenger was healed? (There is almost never a sick passenger. It is MTA speak for a failed switch or the likes.) The second 1 train departed.

NewYoSub

Another 1/2/3 Mishap, Unknown Girl, 1999

A few minutes later an express came in on the local track, and everyone got on it. While I would likely be late to teach, and I hate to be late, I was surprisingly composed. I sat down on the train with my tea a moment before I realized the large guy next to me, who was speaking quite loud, was not speaking to anyone in particular. Until it seemed to be me. I closed my eyes.

“What the hell!? What are you doing? We gotta cross over! We gotta cross over!” he yelled, and I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but assumed he was speaking of the afterlife. I didn’t really feel like getting up and moving away from him, and that might just draw his attention anyway, so I sipped my tea and listened, eyes mostly closed. Most people looked away, angry and annoyed.

As we crawled toward the next local stop, the aggravated man yelled, “He didn’t cross over!! WE ARE NOW STUCK BEHIND A LOCAL! WE’RE BEHIND A LOCAL!! What are you doin’ man!? We got places to BE! You gotta cross over and put some weight on that pedal!”

I realized, as I bit my lip to suppress a smile, that this guy was yelling exactly what I’d been thinking about the local being held in the station. He meant that we should have crossed over to the express tracks after 14th Street, but we didn’t. He continued to yell instructions at the conductor for the next several stops, as everyone else looked around at everything but him, although he was totally right, and probably speaking for all of us. I couldn’t help a small smile. He sensed, I think, that I was in agreement, because he then directed about a quarter of his comments toward me. I did not engage him, as he was rambunctious and possibly disturbed, but I was definitely amused. At this pointed there was little chance we’d catch up with Carlos, but maybe the local behind him.

At 34th Street, the next express stop, the aggravated man got out to yell at he conductor. He got back on, and after we pulled out the the station, he yelled, “That’s it man! THAT’S IT! WE’RE CROSSING OVER! We’re doing it. That’s right man! NOW LET’S GET SOME SPEED ON THIS THING! You watch it now, boys. We’ll get some speed goin’. You just watch.”

That didn’t happen until after 42nd Street, and he got off the extremely crowded train shortly after. We did miss Carlos, and I was a few minutes late to teach. But, unusually, I didn’t get worked up about it. I didn’t stare at the time or attempt to send emails to the manager from underground, I just paid attention to what was going on. And instead of painting him as the shadowed other, I related to aggravated man. His thoughts were just like mine. I had fun on what would ordinarily have been an annoying, stressful delay. Had I chosen to loaf about on the internet instead of meditate, it wouldn’t have played out that way. No chance.

No doubt my next MTA delay will come after a rush, as I don’t give myself the time for midday meditation as often as I should. There will be a stressful freakout. I will be a disaster. And that will be fine, somehow, too. If I can let it.

yoga etiquette 201

etiq2Yoga Etiquette 101 covers the basics of getting to the mat. This will get you through class and out the door. Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you transgress once in awhile. It happens to everyone. But do avoid making these things a habit.

Try Not to Be Territorial About Your Space
This is difficult for most of us, myself included. While I am not attached to a particular space in a class, I do really like to be very close to the radiator and away from drafts. I also really dislike having things in my face, e.g. blankets, blocks, feet. I watch myself want to freak out when someone puts them at the front of my mat. It is, however, bad form to think you own 12 square feet of the studio, and to declare to others in the locker room that the class was ruined for you because some unknowing soul practiced in your space. It is also bad form to shoot that person anger beams throughout the class. Like the subway etiquette artist said, “It’s crazy this even needs to be mentioned.” It is unattractive to make faces when someone puts his mat down closer than you’d like. If you arrive on time but there’s no space left, ask the teacher where you should go. If he points out a space, those around it will be less salty about moving for you.

Avoid Setting Your Mat On Top of Someone Else
That said, don’t plunk down on top of someone else, or put your props in their space. When you set up, imagine how you’d feel if you were in the nearby spaces, and set up accordingly. And, please, please, please do not put your socks within five feet of anyone else. Gross.

green1Once Class Has Begun, Don’t Leave Unless It’s Incredibly Important
This means don’t leave to text, take a call, use the restroom, or because things are too hard. If you have to go, you have to go. But do you? This is for all the same reasons you wouldn’t want to come late (see last article).

Don’t Make Strange Noises
There is occasionally a student who feels the need to make lots of noise. It is wildly annoying. Don’t sigh dramatically or repeatedly unless the instructor has suggested it. Or breathe like a turbo engine. I took a led ashtanga class near a guy who was taking such bizarre, convulsive breaths that I feared he was ill. He was not. The ummm’ers and ahhhh’ers are irritating to everyone. It seems more like a bid for attention than something that occurs spontaneously. Please. Knock it off.

Respect the Teacher
Ann Pizer explains it well: “When you enter a yoga class, you sign on to respect the teacher for the next hour and a half. You may discover halfway through the class that you don’t care for this teacher, style, or hour of the day. But you still should continue with the class, follow the teacher’s instructions, take your Savasana, and chalk it up to experience.”

Keep Variations Reasonable
In her take on Yoga Etiquette, Farnoosh Brock says: “Respecting your yoga teacher comes in many forms. The easiest one is following the poses or a modified version of them. I would not say this if I had not witnessed it many times. Do not do your own series in the middle of a guided class if you are bored or uninterested in the current pose. Finish the class and choose another teacher but during the class, respect the teacher enough to follow instructions and do so with an open mind.” We have all felt trapped in a class at one time or another, and we have all needed to modify a pose or a sequence. There is an occasional student who wants to show everyone how much she knows by doing her own thing at her own pace. Not only does it disrupt the class and confuse other students, it generates a fair amount of eye rolling from others. I do have some advanced students who will practice in the back, and add a scorpion or split at an appropriate time. But these are students I know and have relationships with, and I am sure they know what they’re doing. If you aren’t sure about if your variations will be disruptive, ask the teacher.

Don’t Leave Early
It is disturbing for the same reasons as arriving late and coming and going, especially in savasana when people are trying to relax.

Don’t Ogle or Hit On Other Students or the Teacher
In the name of research, I just read a number of hideous pieces on how to hit on someone in your yoga class. Ugh. It is nice to imagine a space free from cell phones and pickups lines, but perhaps I am naive. I had a student disappear for awhile only to return and tell me that her boyfriend wouldn’t let her take class because he didn’t want guys looking at her bum. Who knew? I guess the New York Times (the end of that article is particularly alarming) and The Inappropriate Yoga Guy (above). Miss Wingman has a whole essay on how to pick up women at yoga. Among other pointers: “Don’t be too good at it. If we wanted to date a guy who was Gumby-flexible or could hold a difficult pose indefinitely, we’d date a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. There’s a difference between being open-minded enough to try yoga, and chipping away at your masculinity. Walk that line at your own risk.” Seriously? Who knew that flexibility was emasculating? Right Bruce Lee? Putin? Baryshnikov?

While a fan of romance, I am against hitting on someone in class, especially if you just want sex. That said, if you develop a crush, see where it goes over time and perhaps strike up a conversation leaving the studio. Use your intuition. If that someone is the teacher, just don’t do it. If why isn’t obvious, I’ll need to write another essay. Instead, use your crush as motivation to practice. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable or just hit on someone at random. If you aren’t sure what that means or are enamored of a number of men or women in class, again, don’t do it. It’s sleazy. Most people are looking for respite in their yoga class, not a date. If someone hits on you and you feel uncomfortable, talk to the teacher. Don’t let them ruin your experience or take your favorite class from you. It’s not right.

Be Neat and Patient When Putting Props Away At All Times
Fold blankets and mats properly, stack blocks neatly, and don’t cut in the line waiting to do so. In fact, keep the things near your mat during class to a minimum. You don’t need your cell phone next to you. If you take your specs off, put them on a block so no one steps on them.

Locker Room Etiquette
Do not lock yourself into the sole bathroom for ten minutes to change when there is a line. Change in the changing area and keep the bathroom free for others. Do not take lengthy showers, especially when others are waiting. If you use the last of something (soap, towels, etc), tell the management. Don’t use your phone here either, if it’s a yoga studio. No one showering after class wants to hear about your mother’s health issues or your dinner plans. Take it outside.

Again, a once in awhile transgression is not an issue. Bad habits are. Yoga classes and schools vary in etiquette, so get a feel for yours and if unsure, ask someone!

yoga etiquette 101

EtiqForYoLike most subcultures, yoga has an unspoken etiquette. When it is spoken, or posted on signs in studios, it’s often ignored. Who reads signs when they could read a flirtatious text on their phone? Probably the person trying to get by, annoyed that someone is blocking the hallway, texting, totally unawares. But she already knows that phones, by now, should be off.

In some ways yoga etiquette is obvious and commonsensical, but perhaps not so to the newcomer. And perhaps not in a world where someone is driven to design subway etiquette signs. In the beginning of the semester, I find myself frequently explaining matters of yoga etiquette. I remind myself that these behavioral codes may not be obvious to everyone, especially in a gym.

Because my teaching manner is very direct, I’m sure I startle students who expect a yoga teacher to be nice at all times. Yoga is not about nice, or about love and light. (Yes, love is part of the equation. But we could also call it emptiness. Emptiness and dark. That’s for another day.) In fact, yoga is etymologically related to “yoke,” with all its implications.

Art by Ted Slampyak

Art by Ted Slampyak

As a yoga teacher, I am responsible for creating a space for students, and I am a bit of a mama bear about this space. Most find I am incredibly nice, when these codes of conduct are not transgressed. Some guidance:

Arrive On Time or Early
When someone comes into a yoga class late, it disturbs the class while he comes in, put his stuff down, gets props, and finds a space—if there is a space. If not, everyone has to rearrange. He literally disrupts a mood in the room, and no one appreciates it. It is difficult to settle into a class when people are sending beams of anger.

Choose an Appropriate Level Class
If you are totally new to yoga, start with something for beginners. If you aren’t sure, call and ask questions. When you take a class because it fits in your schedule rather than because it is appropriate for your level, you run the risk of confusion, injury, and general unpleasantness. A teacher cannot water down a intermediate class because one student can’t follow, nor can he break the flow of class to teach you what the other students have already learned. It’s also annoying to everyone if you just do your own thing, either because you can’t do what’s being taught, or you’ve deemed it too easy for you. (There is a difference between modifying poses to your needs and creating your own little sequence. More on this in the next post.)

Sign in
How you pay for class and sign in varies greatly by studio. Before you set down your mat and settle in, make sure you are properly signed up. If you aren’t sure what the process is, ask someone. Don’t assume you can take a class if you aren’t signed up for that class. It puts the teacher in the uncomfortable position of telling you no, especially because, unless it’s her studio, she doesn’t make the rules.

subETIQu

Art by Jay Shells

Turn off Gadgets
I suppose it was inevitable, but last year it happened. I had a student text in class. She was in setu bhanda. I was flabbergasted. My eyes got big and wide and I shook my head at her. When she didn’t stop I added, “That is not appropriate.” Yoga is about awareness. Awareness requires discipline, and separating yourself from your phone for an hour is one place to start. If this doesn’t interest you, try spinning. At the very least, have respect for others. The yoga studio is one of the last spaces left where we are free from soul-crushing electronic disquiet. If you cannot be away from your phone for the duration of the class, don’t go. Don’t use your phone in the changing room or lobby, either. This is the policy at most studios as it’s disturbing to those around you.

Cleanliness is Next to
Hygiene is such a big part of Hindu culture (from which yoga comes) that there are myriad rituals around it. Cleanliness is a big deal, and as well it should be. Did you know that you are meant to shower before, not after, yoga? My friend, Angela, explains this in her own memo on yoga etiquette: Arriving. It’s important that you, your clothes, and your mat be clean. There’s nothing wrong with sweating in class and the smell that may come with it. It is the stale odors that are objectionable.

Leave Your Shoes Outside!
Take your shoes off and leave them outside the studio, or wherever you see shoes stored. Even if the class is in a space not exclusively designated for yoga, note what others are doing with their shoes and follow suit. Why? Because they are so filthy (especially in NYC) that there are symbolic rituals around them.

etiquWear Clothes
Cover up. You’d be surprised what can pop out in an up dog or revealed in down dog. In fact, try them in the dressing room before you buy. Pants that seem opaque in the delicate lighting of your home may well not be in the gaudy florescence of a gym. This is not a judgment about your sexual availability, nor is there judgment if your velcro fly rips open in a down dog assist and your pants come off in my hands (happened). It is simply about keeping distractions to a minimum. I prefer guys keep their shirts on. Women do. That said, your comfort is important. For more info on what to wear, try: yoga :: what to wear? and what to wear for yoga.

Pipe Down
When you enter the studio, please quiet down. This means don’t bang the blocks, whap the mat down, or yell across the room to a friend. It also means begin to draw your awareness in. Notice the light, the sounds, the temperature, your mood, your energy level, your breath. Give your full attention to yourself, by which I don’t mean getting your space before that new guy does (see next post). Begin this transition when you take your shoes off, and stay with it until the end of class. Not only is it impossible to do this if you are chatting with a friend, but it is impossible for those around you, as well. Even if you aren’t interested in yoga, please be respectful of those who are. Don’t chit chat until class ends.

Out of respect for your eyes and time, I’ll cover the second half in the next post on Wednesday.

post-Trigger Mind: on pain, safety and healing

I was not heartened by the reactions to my last post, Trigger Mind. You didn’t hear me, and I really wanted you to hear me. That blocked me a bit. Angered me too, and I lost motivation to post here.

I shared my experience with you. And that experience, the healing of trauma, is not simple, easy, controlled or clean. It involves pain.

Though I worked hard to be clear that it was not about my community or teachers, most of you insisted it be so, in comments here and on social media. I addressed that and will not take it further. I feel the need to be clear about what you missed, though, as there are implications.

Some of you ignored my message and steamrolled my right to heal and practice in terms that feel right and good to me. You offered unsolicited advice that you are not qualified to give. You did this, perhaps, because you are uncomfortable with pain. And who isn’t? Precious few.

Some friends understood. I’d asked a few to vet it before I posted, and had even read it to my shrink (ah yes, I do have qualified help), who responded to my, “Is this too edgy or is it okay to post?” with, “Yes, why not?”

When I shared with him the reaction from the interwebs, he asked, “Well, what did you expect?” in a tone that said “don’t be dumb. They are internet commenters. The peanut gallery.”

“What were your motives?” he continued. “Did you want pity? Did you want them to care about your pain? Well, you are right, they don’t.”

Good questions. Did I want pity? I don’t think so, not consciously. I’ve learned that if I want something unconsciously and refuse it, his mere suggestion makes me livid. This didn’t. No, I think I wanted to be understood.

Did I want the interwebs-at-large to care about my pain? Well, that’s a tall request. And while it wasn’t my motivation, I really didn’t want such strong evidence of how little you did.

Part of my motivation was to share my experience. To be understood. And yes, to make clear, to break a little bubble of fantasy that is rampant among yoga “helpers”—yoga is not some easy panacea.

Like most of you, I love yoga. I spend over 35hrs a week practicing and teaching yoga and meditation (I consider meditation to be implicit in yoga, but sometimes need to mention it). Yoga is an amazing practice, and frankly, I probably have more faith in it than I do anything else.

But it is not painless. It is not some easy cure-all that will, on its own, heal PTSD. Its growing position in the trauma industry is definitely worthy of critique. Specifically, the call to make all yoga classes “trauma-sensitive” (I’ve spoken to this earlier), and the assumption that teachers with a weekend of “trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training” (commonly led by people with no real qualifications themselves) who seek to “heal themselves by healing others,” are doing more good than harm.

Keep in mind that most studies done showing that yoga has a positive effect on PTSD involved highly trained professionals and, often, other forms of therapy.

The only thing, I believe, that truly helps heal trauma, is the capacity to face and feel your own pain, and the ability to face and hold the pain of others. This involves a lot more than “letting go” and is easier said than done.

Do you remember Annie, in the yoga chapter of van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (Chapter 16)? She was so triggered during her first trauma-sensitive yoga class at van der Kolk’s clinic that she went home and cut herself. Again, it was a trauma-sensitive class at van der Kolk’s trauma center. She went home and cut herself. Are you freaking out? Can you take that in?

What those of you who schooled me on the last post do not understand is that the body is not a safe place for a trauma survivor. We are largely split off from it, and our emotions. For us to do yoga, we must enter unsafe space—our bodies. In Trigger Mind, I stayed with my experience, my body, my emotions, and I shared it with you. And you didn’t quite listen.

When you chime in class, “You are safe here,” we cringe at your ignorance. There is nothing that betrays your cluelessness more quickly. We have spent 80% of our mental energy post-trauma (for many of us, most of our lives) in hyperarousal mode unconsciously trying to suss if we are safe. Some do-gooder cooing “you are safe here” does not magically deliver us from this deeply ingrained response. It makes us roll our eyes and pray we can get through your class, much less get something out of it.

When you try to cleanse and prevent every possible trigger in a class (which is impossible in so many ways), you miss the point entirely. Effective treatment “needs to involve (a) learning to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing the capacity for interoception, (b) learning to modulate arousal, and (c) learning that after confrontation with physical helplessness it is essential to engage in taking effective action” (BESSEL A. VAN DER KOLK Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1071 Article first published online: 26 JUL 2006 | DOI: 10.1196/annals.1364.022). This is what I did in Trigger Mind. That is what it sounds like in real terms, experienced terms, outside of the clean, clinical, medicalese you feel safe with. That is what I wanted you to hear.

My engagement with effective action? I wrote the piece and some people got it. I talked to my shrink and decided, learned, it was better to move the moment I felt unsafe or near-triggered rather than try to be tough and stick it out. Shortly after Trigger Mind, Daddy Long Legs introduced himself (not knowing my experience) and we chatted breezily, which helped desensitize me to his limbs. While I’ve had near moments, I haven’t been triggered since that piece. Oh, and EMDR has helped, too. Not to mention the understanding and empathy of countless others.

My point here (I’ll be direct this time) is that healing trauma requires facing the unimaginable pain that could not be faced when trauma occurred. This experience is not safe, theoretical, or easy for anyone involved. There is no formula. No magic trick. Those advocating for trauma-safe yoga classes for all—fine. We have different opinions. I don’t see much, if any, value in yoga alliance, in the majority of yoga teacher trainings, and unfortunately, the majority of yoga classes out there, most of which seek to perfect the body, or power through endlessly impressive asana, or engage in magical rhetoric to numb and escape suffering. The chances of my being triggered in the average yoga class are about 85%. I would simply go on lockdown to avoid it, which is not healing in the least.

That you believe these classes can be made “safe” and trigger-free by a few hours of awareness training, that you think we can unlock, feel and process the horrors in our bodies in a room full of strangers while pop music blares, or that you think no teacher should be allowed to blare music in her yoga class, speaks to your own ideas about yoga, safety, and healing, and you’ve every right to them. But please don’t inflict them on my real-world experience and process as a survivor-practitioner. In my last year of practice, I was triggered three times (not much) at my studio, without telling my teachers or community about my experience or “condition” because that is how I want it. How I feel comfortable.

When advocacy for and teaching of trauma survivors is done with so little understanding of our actual experience, with so little willingness to take in and respect our individual, personal experience, I have to ask, who is this about? Who, here, is so desperate for safety? If you don’t have the ability to face another’s pain, to acknowledge and respect it, maybe even empathize for a second instead of stepping in to fix what isn’t yours to deem broken, please, god, do find another hobby.

First published Feb 23, 2015. (Dates changed sometimes to affect slider order on homepage.)

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

20130213-NewYork-Feb--322

Photography has always been something that brings me into the moment (except, perhaps, the few years I worked full time as a photog). It also makes me happy. Seeing something that strikes my interest and playing with it via the camera brings me joy. I’ve noticed that on these walks, a few shots can turn my mood around. I’ve often heard the argument that photography does the opposite, takes the seer out of the moment, by looking for a photo or trying to freeze time instead of just being with what is there. This may be true, and may be more true for some than others. Perhaps if you are on a trip and feel the need to snap away to show others you were there—but this is not photography, and the result is not interesting. Yes, there are definitely moments when it’s time to put down the camera. Personally, I’ve found that photography brings me far more into the moment than writing does. Not the moment of actual writing, when there’s little choice, but the stories I write in my head when walking down the street, when I see something funny I want to share. As it is told and retold in my mind, how much accuracy have I retained? How much have I missed passing by? As a form of creativity, I don’t see this as inherently bad. I just notice the power photography has to bring me into the moment and open my eyes. It’s inaccurate to say that photography is not an act of awareness. We don’t hear people complain that writers aren’t in the moment because they are crafting stories in their heads, but it is perfectly true.

Last year, I started carrying a point and shoot with me at all times. Not necessarily to Mysore practice, but everywhere. But because my walk to practice is daily, at my most focused time of day, a series of photos began: The Walk to Mysore. It’s also the walk from Mysore, which can include different paths. Read the full story…

yoga mats: the good, the bad, and the crumbly

The yoga mat. It is very good to have your own if you practice yoga regularly. You can contract some pretty gross stuff from communal mats. What kind of mat you want will largely depend on your yoga. If you practice a few times a week and don’t mind PVCs, a cheap mat from Yoga Accessories, Gaiam, or anywhere will do the trick. Expect it to be slippery until you break it in. My teacher recently gave me the best advice ever on breaking in a mat: “Don’t cut your toenails for awhile. Then they’ll chip into the mat and it will have more traction.” Amazing. I usually just tell people to machine wash it and air dry. This is an upside to the cheap mats—but don’t try it with a fancy mat. Anything but the cheap, common mat will probably not survive a machine wash.

If you practice more seriously, or don’t want a PVC mat, there are better, but more expensive options. If you practice ashtanga, you will shred a cheap mat in a week, and the little mat bubbles will stick all over you. There are two solutions to this. The first is a towel (or mysore rug), most popular in Ashtanga and Bikram, which heavy sweaters will need anyway. You use the mat for standing poses, then unfurl the towel over it for the rest. I really don’t know one brand from another, as I don’t sweat that much and don’t use one. The next solution is a good mat. Ashtangis pretty much swear by Manduka because they don’t shred, and their PRO mats are guaranteed for life. Take note: the Manduka eKO®  collection are not. I bought one, expecting it to preform like my PROlite. Instead it shredded in just a few uses. It was also much more grippy—too grippy for my taste.

leaf bug on mat

It took me no less than 25 emails with their customer service to convince them that a $76 yoga mat should not shred after a few uses, even if it was natural tree rubber. They finally sent me a PROLite to replace it for a $12 shipping fee. Their rep was helpful, if a times a bit absurd, suggesting that a wipe down with apple cider vinegar would stop the shredding and offering to send a “slightly used mat” to replace it (see “gross stuff” above). This was, I acknowledge, after they ran out of the sale mats they’d originally offered because Hurricane Sandy delayed my reply. I am sure they found me equally absurd.

So, yes, I recommend the PRO/PROlite mats. The PROs are extremely cushy and durable, but heavy. Not for walking about town, but great for home, studio, or I suppose, people with cars. They are cushier than the PROlite, which I’ve read some people find hard. I don’t. I also don’t find them slippery, after a break in. I heard a teacher explain that mats are slippery when dry, but stick when you’re sweaty.

I don’t find that to be the case, but maybe for some. While they are expensive, they last forever. They are made of “an eco-certified PVC material and manufactured emissions free” (their site). It’s quite awesome to have a mat you’ve spent thousands of hours on. If you get a cheaper mat and have to buy a new one every week, month, or year, that’s much more expensive than getting a good one to begin with, and harder on the planet. While I don’t adore my manduka mat, I can’t really imagine getting that excited about a mat. It’s a good mat, and it doesn’t fall apart or shed into my hair or clothes. I got mine on sale at Gilt, so they were more like $55 than $85.

Another recommended mat, less expensive but less durable, is the eco-friendly Jade Yoga Mat. They have more traction than Manduka PROs and are made of PVC-free biodegradable tree rubber. I have a few students who like them, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to an ashtanga practice. I see them shred within a year. They are super-grippy and you can catch on it if your jump-throughs don’t clear. Judging from web reviews, they are popular with vinyasa practitioners. I’m also told this hugger mugger is cheap, not-slippery, and good.

Mats to avoid? Anything made out of jute. I got one on amazon years ago and it was a disaster from the get go, shedding its juteness all over me, the studio, and the practitioners after me. It is also hard and sand papery, and literally cut my feet open. There are blood stains on that mat. I’ve had similar issues with the super-thin travel mats, made by assorted companies. They are way too thin to practice on unless you’re on carpet or grass, and that’s not ideal anyway. I suppose better than nothing, and I still travel with mine, had for $12 on amazon. Buy a cheap one though, because the pricey travel mats are no better.


Photos from my beloved personal archives. ©2010-2013.
West 23rd St./Under a tree uptown/Upstate/West 16th St.

to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.

Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C

Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

(First posted Feb 6, 2013)

yoga :: what to wear?

part 2 of 2. See also part 1: “preferably something opaque” endures all trends

Because my shala is closed on the weekend, yesterday I took a led power class. This class is such a circus, and so different from quiet morning Mysore, that I take it almost to test my ability to focus. You know, kind of like how the aging Gandhi told young girls to sleep and bathe naked with him to test his purity. I enjoy every minute.

photo sexy yoga wear

Victoria’s Secret, high on the sweatshop list, breaks out with NEW! Yoga & Sexxxy Lounge. Hey, darling! You’re losing your shorts.

It’s been two years since I wrote a bit on what to wear for yoga and it’s time I updated, as my views have changed on a matter or two. The basic tenet to (please) wear something opaque still stands. So does: “You need nothing special to do yoga.” That said, some togs will serve you better than others. Especially if they are clean. You must launder your clothing. You are sweating. Yes, I am talking to you, undergrads. Maybe you have developed a tolerance for your personal odor, but we have not. Please. Wash your yoga wear.

There is just so much stuff. Everywhere. Especially after sales blitz December. It is overwhelming. So, to reiterate, you need nothing special to do yoga. If you are thinking that a cute new top will get you into headstand, stop. If that line made you want to run and check the Gilt sales in case there’s something great you might miss, get a hold of yourself. Take a breath and keep reading. Better yet, go practice in whatever you are wearing now. If it’s a t-shirt, you will find it bags around your head. So next time choose a snug-but-not-tight tank top. That’s my choice. They are fairly easy to find, but I’ll mention some stores in a moment.

gaiam2

Gaiam has some nice yoga stuff, and good intentions.

Pants are more troublesome. Years back Old Navy made a boot leg pant that I loved. They phased it out in 2005 or so, and I had to search for something else. I had to switch to capris, because they took over the market and it was hard to find anything else. It seems that yoga clothing manufacturers are as desperate for your money as the rest as the garment industry, because styles of yoga pants cycle. If you like leggings and slightly flared capris (flatters who?) are in vogue, too bad. This is why when I find a pant I like, I tend to buy five pairs in black, so I don’t have to go through the search again for a few years. If you really think you need the current style in the current brand of yoga wear to practice, you are missing the point.

I’ve been told by men that shorts are a concern. Last time, Rod said: “A good rule of thumb, especially for blokes, is to imagine that at some point you could be upside down in the clothes that you put on: how much will be revealed/concealed when this is the case?” I recently saw another student reiterate this concern in a shoulderstand comment on the faceboek.

Fibers. I used to prefer cotton, as weird blends smell more when you sweat. Then I read about how toxic and pesticide ridden most cotton is and I changed my mind. While it’s easy to buy from Old Navy because they’re cheap and convenient, it’s not so easy to think about the small child working in a sweatshop sewing your pants together. Though it’s easy to be cynical and toss off responsibility because basically everything you buy in today’s world is exploiting someone, in the end, it does matter. Check out The Story of Stuff for how all the unused junk in your storage space affects communities near and far (and what you can do about it).

When Gaiam learned of this being printed on their mats by CafePress, they pulled them immediately. Really, truly bizarre.

?????

Brands like Gaiam, Manduka, Patagonia, and Prana are smaller businesses that try to do something valuable for the planet we inhabit. Do they? To some extent, yes. When insanely distasteful slogans (Who wants to do yoga on a mat celebrating someone’s death? I’m so confused) were being printed on Gaiam mats by CafePress, Gaiam removed them immediately. “The Footprint Chronicles” at Patagonia examine their “life and habits as a company. The goal is to use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts – and on an industrial scale.” One of my students works there, and she loves it. Prana is committed to sustainability and partners with some good organizations to that end. I’ll cover Manduka soon in a yoga stuff post. I do get my nice yoga stuff from Gilt when they offer these companies’ wares.

Yeah, it’s hard to know if “sustainability” and “community” claims are sincere or just marketing gimmicks in the brave new world of conscious capitalism. It’s simply gross when Whole Foods CEO states that global warming is “not necessarily bad” while promoting his new book: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Ugh. (For an endlessly amusing look at commercial yoga culture, check out The Babarazzi.)

Walking home from that yoga class yesterday, I overheard two women talking as they passed by on Greenwich Avenue. One said to the other, “We could go drunk shopping,” in a dull monotone, as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. Did you even know this was a thing? Let’s get a collective grip. The bottom line is, how much is enough? Do you really need it? Figure that out, and buy appropriately. Then make a list of things you love to do aside from buying stuff, maybe things you wish you had more time to do. The next time you find yourself shopping to distract yourself or ease your pain, instead do something from that list. This seems simplistic, but it’s harder than it sounds. There will be some resistance, guaranteed. But it will feel really good. Especially if it’s some yoga. :)